Sunday, May 24, 2015

How superfoods are less than super

Consumers buy into the notion of "superfoods" in their search for the magic pill or quick fix. The health claims are seductive and hard to resist.

How superfoods are less than super

The problem with superfoods is that, once it becomes “super” it is often included in every imaginable packaged food available.
The problem with superfoods is that, once it becomes “super” it is often included in every imaginable packaged food available. iStock

I despise the concept of superfoods. Deeply. It perpetuates the notion that there are good and bad foods, that there is a “magic” ingredient which will lead to unwavering health and causes healthful ingredients to become over-priced and inaccessible to many people.  In reality, the genesis of a superfood is no more than a  money making marketing tactic.Take an exotic food with a tantalizing backstory--attach to that a health claim along with an absurd price tag--and, consumers will buy it. Lots of it--if they can afford it. But why?

Consumers buy into the notion of “superfoods” in their search for the magic pill or quick fix.  The health claims are seductive and hard to resist.  It often feels like we are doing something wrong if we are not eating this select group of foods like flax and coconut oil.  We feel guilty by not buying into the craze which for many, is unaffordable and unrealistic.

Sure, so-called superfoods like flax and quinoa, coconut oil and gogi berries have a place in our diets.  Sure, they are nutrient dense, but so are most plant based whole foods which, as a whole are seriously lacking on most american plates. Does the exotic backstory and hefty price tag really make them better for you?  Not necessarily. For most of us, incorporating any whole foods into our diets would be a healthy upgrade.

Take a five minute skim through your social media forum of choice.  What do you see?  Captions reading: “Which nut is the best” and “Salmon is the healthiest fish” or  “Kale reigns supreme”...or wait, is it watercress?  Why do we have to choose?

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Even vegetables, a food group that is statistically underconsumed, are being ranked on their nutrient density leading consumers to believe that there are good and bad choices.  In a society where processed food reigns supreme and it is rare that we have any, let alone enough plant based foods on our plates--do we need to shame one vegetable and praise another?  Shouldn’t the focus be on encouraging consumers to EAT vegetables, instead?  Shouldn’t the focus be on making healthful foods affordable and accessible?

We have lost touch with the true meaning of the word healthy and are instead, caught up in the media frenzy. We have lost touch with the realities of why we eat--to nourish our bodies--which, is difficult to do by only consuming foods from an expensive, short list of the so-called healthiest ingredients around.  

The other problem with superfoods is that, once it becomes “super” it is often included in every imaginable packaged food available.  In their whole foods form, these superfoods are nutrient dense but, like many processed foods,  they can lose some of their redeemable traits once they are refined or combined with other less-than-healthy ingredients.  Dried tart cherries that are pumped with sugar and coated in milk chocolate are not nearly as healthful as a raw or unsweetened, dry version.  Jif Omega-3 Peanut Butter may be marketed as a healthy choice but, when you read the ingredients you soon learn it also has added sugar and hydrogenated fats.  Not good. It seems every bread, cracker and cereal these days has the word flax slapped on the label. Again, Just because a product contains flax doesn’t make it healthful.  The same cereal may be loaded with sugar, chemicals, additives and preservatives and the flax seeds may be whole instead of ground in which case your body can’t absorb those superfood nutrients anyway.    

What’s the take home message here?  We need to take responsibility for our food choices and commit to making mindful, healthful decisions instead of looking for the quick fix. We need to see through the manufactured health claims and instead manufacture real, healthy lifestyle habits for ourselves. If a food claim seems to be to good to be true, it probably is.  Stick with the basics.  Eat whole foods; fresh when possible; lots of veggies.  Read food labels, especially the ingredient lists, when available. Eat a variety of plant based foods and don’t fall into the marketing trap of thinking one food trumps all the rest.

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About this blog
Katie Cavuto, MS, RD Culinary Nutritionist, Dietitian for the Philadelphia Phillies
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