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What Even Is A Superfood?

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Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
There’s something about the word “super” that’s admittedly appealing: super powers. Super heroes. The supernatural. But typically, we’re pretty cognisant that "super" is just an entertaining fantasy.

So why do we still seem to believe in the “superfood," of all things?

This is especially vexing right now, at a time when we are finally beginning to break free from the bullshit of the multi-billion-dollar diet industry. In 2013, the number of women who identified as “dieters” dropped down to the all-time low of just 23% (in 1992, it was 35%), according to market research firm The NPD Group. Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2015, there was a 202% increase in global launches of food and drink products containing the words “superfood,” “superfruit” or “supergrain,” per data from Mintel.

On some level, the allure of superfoods makes a lot of sense. Everyone wants to feel healthy and energised, and one of the best ways to do that is to eat well, of course. But the problem with superfoods is that they tend to rely on junk science to over-promise when it comes to health benefits. That, and no one knows what the word “superfood” even means.

Sharon Akabas, PhD, the associate director at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University, explains, “the word 'superfood' has no actual meaning.” “Superfood” is, in fact, strictly a media and marketing term, which was first coined by Michael Van Straten in 1990 in his Superfoods cookbook. In it, he mostly talked about how fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts “supply the vital bricks that build your body's resistance to stress, disease, and infection” and provided recipes based on said ingredients. While the language was flowery, perhaps, it’s not wrong to say that nutritious whole foods like spinach and asparagus are health-promoting. Nowadays, though (and much to Van Straten’s dismay), the word “superfood” is more often used in the context of turning exotic foodstuffs (often touted as newly discovered) into miracle products with ridiculous health superpowers — things like açaí, goji berries, pomegranates, and even cockroach milk come to mind.

Anything that people have enough money to put behind can be a superfood.

John Stanton, PhD

This modern definition is why it can be said that the first superfood may actually have been the banana, which at one time was an exotic food that most Americans had never even seen before. The United Fruit Company didn’t use the exact word at the time, but the banana’s status as the original superfood remains because, crucially, it was the first food to star in a very effective marketing campaign based on bad science.

In the early 20th century, celiac disease was a rare and mysterious disease without a cure — until one doctor, Sidney Hass, started a small group of children with celiac on a diet of bananas, milk, broth, gelatin, and little meat. Though it was the lack of gluten in their diets that cured them, Dr. Hass attributed the miraculous change in his patients to a bonkers theory about a non-existent magical enzyme found in bananas. “After Haas had developed the banana diet, United Fruit parlayed the fruit’s ability to fight celiac disease into more general claims about its healthfulness,” writes Alan Levinovitz, PhD, in his book The Gluten Lie And Other Myths About What You Eat. “One emeritus Harvard Medical School professor remarked in 1932 that the medical literature concerning the banana diet read less like science and more ‘like advertisements of the United Fruit Company.’”

Today, this plays out similarly in the form of industry-funded studies, which seem to be the starting point for making a new superfood happen. It’s not that the food industry buys scientists outright, says John Stanton, PhD, who teaches food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University and has consulted with large food companies. But it does set aside money to fund studies. “Most major food companies have budgets for R&D. Some of that money is given as grants to academic scientists,” he explains. “There is also money in a public relations account which can be used to make a big deal about positive results. Assuming the results are positive, they will publicise it. If results are negative, they just don't take it to the press.”

The press is the real key. Every year, for example, media outlets anoint new superfoods (often by creating lists of foods that are trending in grocery stores), and coverage is often influenced by persistent, well-funded public relations teams. “We could take Swedish Fish, and if we had enough money and enough PR, we could get the media saying Swedish Fish are superfoods,” Dr. Stanton adds. “Anything that people have enough money to put behind can be a superfood.”

Interestingly, this competition with new superfoods has led the producers of regular fruits and vegetables to do the same thing. “Producers of fruits and vegetables feel that they, too, need to compete. They form trade associations to do this for them and to pay for research they can use to market their products as ‘superfoods,’” writes Marion Nestle, PhD, in a post on her Food Politics blog about a study funded by the Pear Bureau Northwest that found pears may improve blood pressure. Her take on the findings? “If pears are superfoods, all fruits are superfoods. Eat the ones you like.”

As Dr. Nestle points out, the problem isn’t that so-called superfoods, such as all manner of berries, pomegranates, pears, bananas and so on are unhealthy. But what is potentially harmful (or at least just extremely annoying) is what so often follows the myth that a certain berry or not-so-exotic fungus is capable of performing miracles: the trove of powders, smoothie mixes, drops, teas, and tablets made with so-called superfood ingredients that promise ways to “detoxify” the body, “energise” you, “quell dessert cravings,” or help “your body burn up fat quicker.” (Ugh.)

And while (hopefully) most of us know by now that eating a bunch of mushrooms is not the same thing as sprinkling mushroom dust into our smoothies, many still fall for these problematic claims in the grocery store, Dr. Akabas says. Take POM Wonderful, for example, which sells relatively sane-seeming pomegranate products, including seed packs, juices, and teas: The company reported record sales of £130 million in 2012 before a lawsuit ruling revealed its claims about blood pressure and heart health were unsubstantiated — and even then, the company still saw an increase in sales in 2013, according to a press release.


Currently, POM Wonderful’s marketing materials say pomegranates can protect the body against “free radicals — unstable molecules that cause damage to our bodies over time.” This claim is technically supported by research, but the science of antioxidants is far from settled. In fact, in 2011 the European Food Safety Authority concluded antioxidants have no beneficial effect on “free radicals” in humans.

At the same time, POM Wonderful’s 100% Pomegranate juice product contains 32 grams of sugar (a can of Coke has 39 grams). And while you might think the sugars in fruit juice are more “natural” and therefore healthier than the added sugars in soda, the truth is that juice has a much higher concentration of sugars than whole fruit — and lacks the fibre that helps slow digestion of sugar — so it’s basically the same thing. “Whenever you juice something, you’re taking the fruit or vegetable and are concentrating the sugars in amounts that are not present in the fruit or vegetable originally,” Dr. Akabas explains.

Jeri Nieves, PhD, an associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, adds that exaggerated promises like the “free radical” thing only distract people from the diet choices that might actually help improve health: the boring ones you’ve heard so many times before, such as eating a balanced diet with plenty of produce and other whole foods on most days. “It’s the same thing we see with people who use supplements,” Dr. Nieves says. Just as a daily multivitamin can’t make up for not eating your daily three to five servings of fruits and vegetables, drinking an antioxidant-rich juice or adding some raspberry drops to your coffee isn’t going to make you invincible (or magically slimmer).

Aside from bogus semi-related products, what’s also a problem is how the allure of "superfoods" may have the potential to feed disordered eating behaviours. Those with eating disorders or those susceptible to them can easily be wooed by the supposed superpowers of these foods, because the psychology of superfoods is similar to that surrounding the desire to “eat clean” or to only eat “good” foods.

“The main danger I see is people are left feeling bad about themselves and their diets if they aren't including these ‘superfoods’ every day,” adds Justine Roth, MS, RD, CDN who specialises in the treatment of eating disorders. “It might be more problematic for a disorder like orthorexia where the problems really surround obsession with eating all things clean and ‘perfect.’”

Way back in 2007, the European Union passed a law banning the use of the word “superfood” or “super” on labels unless it is backed by an authorised health claim from the EU register on nutrition and health claims. In effect, this means food marketers in Europe can’t even use the word unless it’s used in conjunction with an approved claim, such as Vitamin D’s ability to help your body use calcium.

Adopting similar regulation here in the United States could help make it harder for marketers to say crazy things on their products’ labels, but it probably wouldn’t do anything about big food’s sneaky scientific influences — or to assuage our larger problem of assigning often senseless value judgements to food.

Instead, we just need to remember: As fun as it is to imagine a new, super-powered superfood swooping in to save the day, it’s just a fantasy. If it’s a food that helps you get excited about eating more nutritious whole foods, that’s great. Just don’t forget to keep one foot firmly planted in the real world, where what you eat is an important factor in your overall health, but probably won’t make you magical.

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