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Are superfoods really that super?

Do you really need to eat blueberries, quinoa, salmon and avocados to be in the pink of health? A fitness coach decodes the superfood buzz

The choice comes down to your goals and food preferences - not always its superfood status
The choice comes down to your goals and food preferences - not always its superfood status (Unsplash)

If you're not eating açai bowls every morning for breakfast, you are missing out on some life-changing nutrients that can cure you of cancer! If you think that is a strongly worded marketing statement, you're not wrong. However, if you're also feeling a bit dubious about that claim, I commend you on your critical mind. As of late, the fitness and nutrition industry is buzzing with statements regarding superfoods. These foods are touted as powerful antioxidants and saviours from potential diseases and ageing.

However, would you believe that there are no set criteria for determining what a superfood is? To at least give ourselves a working definition, Harvard University says a food "is upgraded to superfood status when it offers high levels of desirable nutrients or is believed to offer several simultaneous health benefits beyond its nutritional value. This definition seems reasonable. After all, if obesity and a plethora of diseases are caused or encouraged by overindulging in unhealthy foods, wouldn't it make sense that healthy food can also help our bodies? And if you could get a "super" version of this healthy food, the answer would be obvious.

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However, when shopping for superfoods, it may be more complicated than you think. For one, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) says that it won't certify "structure-function" claims on food products. A structure-function claim is something like "calcium builds strong bones," but it doesn't necessarily stop those who claim this style of benefit on their packaging or marketing. Well, that's a little concerning. This means that the public must rely on potentially misleading marketing to make appropriate food choices. Marketing can contain academic-sounding buzzphrases such as "science has proven" or "results have shown," and depending on where you live, that use of language isn't regulated for the consumer. Even if the food contains those sorts of benefits, the problem with using such language is that it creates an aura of "good or bad" around certain foods, when that may not be the case.

According to market research firm Mintel, supermarket shelves are being loaded with new superfood products, as seen in the 202% increase in foods labelled as a superfood, super grain, or superfruit between 2011-2015. So let's take stock of the situation. The definition of a superfood is scientifically undefined, the FDA isn't regulating structure-based claims, yet the world is going nuts for superfoods. But you can't blame people for trusting and hoping that particular food will benefit their body. The Journal of Consumer Culture talks about the allure of a superfood from a consumer consciousness perspective. It states that choosing foods based on their perceived virtue (bad, good, or super) is a small step towards caring for their bodies. After all, the marketing claims surrounding superfoods are to live longer, prevent scary diseases, and tap into the fountain of youth. Who doesn't want that? It shows that consumers can make a small but necessary decision to improve their health and wellness through self-care.

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With all that being said, however, do superfoods live up to the hype? Simply put, superfoods found in the whole foods section are nutritious, but the evidence supporting that they are "super" healthy compared to "un-super" whole foods may be debatable. It depends on your goals, taste preferences, and the context in which you eat. For example, let's take blueberries, a highly researched superfood, and bananas (which were considered a superfood half a century ago). According to Precision Nutrition, both have cardioprotective nutrients and different antioxidants. When comparing the nutrients of 1 cup of each, blueberries have more vitamin C and K. However, bananas take home the prize for having more B6, Folate (B9), B2, magnesium, and potassium. Bananas have more calories and carbohydrates than blueberries, so the choice comes down to your goals and food preferences - not always its superfood status.

With all of this in mind, let's focus on what we can learn. For starters, consuming superfoods can be limiting, especially when local alternatives contain a comparable amount of some of the vitamins and minerals. Also, choosing a superfood isn't about choosing the ultimate health food. It isn't simply about accessing the underlying nutrients, which may be in slightly higher quantities. At the end of the day, it comes down to this: a well-balanced diet of multiple colours and varieties of fruit and vegetables can help you improve your health.

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