May 16, 2008 at 8:06 pm (Bad Science, Nutritionism) (, , , , , , , )

The nutritionistas and health food stores (not to mention the press) would have you believe that there is such a thing as a ‘superfood’. There isn’t. Not pomegranate, not walnut, not even any kind of special berry harvested by Tibetan monks and recommended by Patrick Holford or Gillian McKeith. The Birmingham News ran a piece on Wednesday this week that included the claim that a dish contained ‘five superfoods’ – apparently: “the salad contains four of the top 10 “superfoods” – spinach, blueberries, strawberries and walnuts- all in one bowl. “Superfoods” are touted to help you maintain your weight, fight disease, and live longer.” and “Adding a side of sauteed spinach took the count of “superfoods” to five.” So, yes, that’s five superfoods – spinach, blueberries, strawberries and walnuts and spinach – if you are allowed to count spinach twice. Well, at least we’ve established that superfoods do not aid maths skills. Superfoods may well be ‘touted to help you maintain your weight, fight disease and live longer’, but is there good evidence for these superfoods in preventing disease and helping you live longer? No. There isn’t even a proper definition of the term superfood. This point was one made in a nutrition bulletin from the British Nutrition Foundation – full text here, PDF also available. The bulletin makes several interesting points, including this one:

However, in many cases, the evidence linking a beneficial effect of a plant bioactive component comes only from in vitro or animal studies, and there is no firm evidence that specific foods or food components prevent certain diseases. Nevertheless, any encouragement to increase fruit and vegetable intake is welcome, and this is the real benefit of these ‘superfoods’ appearing in the media.

I certainly agree with the first part of this statement – that there is no firm evidence that the superfoods being touted by nutritionists and journalists do what is claimed (prevent disease and help you live longer). The second sentence is not quite so simple. I too am in favour of the encouragement to increase fruit and vegetable intake, but I am not convinced that superfoods appearing in the media will be of benefit. Isn’t it possible – or even probable – that at least some people will assume that a lesser amount of a superfood (superfoods, of course,  being superior to ‘ordinary’ fruit and veg) can provide the same (or greater) health benefits than a greater amount of ordinary fruit and veg and eat fewer portions of fruit and veg – but try more exotic varieties? Also, if punters are used to spending x amount of cash on fruit and vegetables and they switch from ordinary fruit and veg to superfoods is there any reason to assume that their spending patterns will change and they will buy an amount of (more exotic) fruit and veg equivalent to the amount they used to buy in carrots, peas and beans etc? Or that they can even afford to spend a greater amount of cash? The BNF make their position crystal clear with regards the place of so-called superfoods: “what is essential is the need to make it exceptionally clear that these foods should be incorporated into a healthy, varied, balanced diet.”

I didn’t see any reference to a healthy, varied, balanced diet in the Birmingham News. Nor was there such a reference in this article on the website. The Boston Channel article did, though, state that “NewsCenter 5’s Heather Unruh reported Wednesday on the five superfoods for women.” The next paragraph began “Nutritionist Elizabeth Somer took us shopping at Whole Foods for six superfoods“. Do superfoods actually make you innumerate or something? I didn’t deliberately look for innumeracy in these articles, these just happened to be the first two stories I read on a google news search for superfoods. I watched the NewsCenter 5 video and Heather Unruh definitely said six. I have a suspicion the writer of the online article thought a top five would look neater. The article also contained what seemed to be an irrelevant claim, apparently from Somer: oregano has 42 times the antioxidants ounce for ounce that an apple does. Antioxidants? They are really boasting about the antioxidant content of oregano? There is no proof that the antioxidant content of fruit and veg is the reason for their health benefits. In fact, “there’s practically nothing in the huge body of contradictory research on nutrition to recommend anything other than “eat your greens”, and you don’t need a journalist, or a scientist, or an expensive nutritionist to tell you that” and there’s more on antioxidants here.

I did find one newspaper report on superfoods that reminded readers to eat a healthy, varied, balanced diet. There was also a quote: “no food can provide our bodies with all the nutrients it requires to keep healthy, so it is very important that these foods are not used as an excuse not to eat well” from the BNF [Note: the BNF are the British Nutrition Foundation, the BNP are evil racists]. Another decent newspaper report on superfoods was this one. Actually, it’s more than just decent – it features quotes from Michael Pollan, Catherine Collins and Jeremy Spencer. Brilliant.


  1. dvnutrix said,

    I’m not feeling kind towards the Brum Disseminator of Nonsense but I assume that the salmon is intended to be one of the superfoods (organic, not farmed – preferably wild Alaskan – I’m just making this up now but I think that I’ve caught this from the nutritionista nonsense I read on a regular basis).

    I won’t ask what quantity of oregano the clever shopper thinks that you can eat on a regular basis, unlike an apple.

    I do have to confess to a liking for pomegranate juice – none of the blends because they taste wretchedly earthy, but as a drink, set as a jelly and served with ice-cream, yum.

    But yes, superfoods are marketing hype. Buy a variety of good quality food that you enjoy and can afford to eat on a regular basis. After that, it’s Pollan’s mantra – Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plant.

  2. patrick said,

    Whoever wrote this article had better look into what “superfoods” mean. That person fell way short of even adequate research, veeeeeery short. It is not defined by broccoli and blueberries, etc. Those are quite good for the body, but not anywhere near the realm you are trying to cite.

    The term “superfoods” has the implication of specific ones with a massive amount of nutrients packed in it (can be beans, plants, and other items). They are often from other countries and must be consumed fairly fresh. Obviously, you have never heard of maca, or cacao, or hemp, or schizandra, to name a few (in powder form is the best). They generally make most people feel absolutely incredible within weeks, and sometimes just a few days. If you ever eventually try them for a few days (in raw powder form, put in a shake would be good), you will feel like this article is pure idiocy. I know because I have been taking them, not just trying to talk about them. Just thought you might like to know that…

  3. jdc325 said,

    I take your point re superfoods not being “defined by broccoli and blueberries” Patrick, but as I wrote in my blog post: “There isn’t even a proper definition of the term superfood. This point was one made in a nutrition bulletin from the British Nutrition Foundation” (the full text of which is linked to above). You have given one definition, others have their own different definitions. For me, all definitions are of limited use because there is no single food that one should concentrate on and no single food that will absolve you of the need to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

    I am glad to hear that you are pleased with the beneficial effects you perceive to be getting from your current diet, but I won’t be stocking up on hemp or schizandra myself.

    Thanks for commenting.

  4. patrick said,

    Point taken, jdc, on no one “single” food that handles everything, but their is a central idea around all the true defining of what superfoods are all about. It has to do with a list of foods that have a lot more nutrition in them for the amount of which you eat of it (and actually satisfies an entire body system in terms of nutrition, like maca for hormones health). Nothing truly can guarantee that you never get an illness, but you can totally affect the likelihood easily with just a little knowledge of just a handful of items on a superfood list (better than just blindly choosing all kinds of fruits and vegetable and hoping for the best!)

    If for the rest of my life, I only ate 6 items, all superfoods (like cacao, maca, schizandra, hemp, nutmeg, bluegreen algae), I would be way way more healthy than most people today. Of course, would I likely just eat those things and not enjoy ANYTHING else ever? Of course not.

    I get rather sick of people saying things that discourage the masses, like: “Superfoods may well be ‘touted to help you maintain your weight, fight disease and live longer’, but is there good evidence for these superfoods in preventing disease and helping you live longer? No.”

    Geez, YOU might as well put, “Since most of just guess with food anyway, it really doesn’t matter what you put in the body, you are going to get sick with something, just face it, you are screwed, the only hope you have is just eat as good as you can, and pray what you get isn’t rapidly debilitating”. Is that what you intended to mean? Remember you affect real people lives on the net with what you put forth. Why can’t you just at least say, though one food won’t do the complete trick, you can dramatically combat your health risks if you know which ones give higher levels of nutrition for that risk. Your article is sooo negative, bashing the people who aim high for health, without any real positive alternate. Most people don’t have formal nutritional training.

    You may not be stocking up on hemp or schizandra, but you just helped more people in the crowds to say, “Yep, even the researchers say, forget about finding easier ways from somewhere to really improve your health. . And since I really don’t have the expertise on nutrition, I’ll likely be able to just get on some “fix me” medication if my general knowledge of dieting doesn’t save me.”

    Sorry to have to comment like this, you might mean well, but I came dangerously close to needing to go to the hospital about 4 years ago. If I had read your article and not “stocked up on hemp and schizandra”, I probably would have given up and gotten on serious medication right now. (It wasn’t those two, but finding on the internet special foods and detox is how I did it). Just “eating healthy” didn’t do it, I needed something more than that.
    I feel quite good at 44 years of age now, have better vitality than I did at 34, and without needing a ton of knowledge on “how to balance food”. Many people my age don’t choose that way because they simply don’t believe it and just run to the doctor.


  5. aaron peacock said,

    i’m as anti “fluff science” as the next Dawkins, however, this author just sounds curmudgeonly, and doesn’t make much rational sense with his/her argument…

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