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 bostonchannel.com 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.