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What exactly are superfoods—and do you need them?

Fulfil the quest for nutrient-rich ingredients by asking the right questions

No single superfood has the magical powers to transform our health all by itself. (iStockPhoto)
No single superfood has the magical powers to transform our health all by itself. (iStockPhoto)

Take a minute to think deeply about this word—‘superfood’—that is thrown around like confetti by the media, health fiends, gym trainers, the #cleaneating tribes on Instagram, and innumerable food brands. Given how the term has been overused, one would think a superfood is like a superhero—a nut, a seed, or a berry wearing a cape, flying around in a tiny jet, rescuing human beings from supervillains like heart diseases, cancer and diabetes while making good on their wishes for great skin, fighting-fit immunity and longevity. Even though this is not entirely fantasy, it is quite far from the truth.

No single superfood has the magical powers to transform our lives and health all by itself. The human body is a very complex machine and the solutions to a healthy and long life cannot be as simple as eating a particular food or swallowing a pill of extracts. So, if not saving the world, one person at a time, what do superfoods do exactly?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the prefix “super” as ‘over and above: higher in quantity, quality or degree’, which means that the term ‘superfood’ is a food of very high quality. According to the book Diet Cults by Matt Fitzgerald, the oldest usage of the term ‘superfood’ was in a poem published in a Jamaican newspaper as a reference to wine. The second-oldest known usage of the word ‘superfood’ was in 1949—in an article in a Canadian newspaper referring to the nutritional qualities of a muffin!

If I had to describe superfoods without succumbing to superlatives, I would say that they comprise foods that are a concentrated source of one or more nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Due to their nutrient density, these foods help boost general health, immunity and longevity, or are known for specific benefits, such as cancer prevention or blood sugar management.

It would not be wrong to call them ‘smart foods’ because choosing foods with more nutrient density is a smarter choice for good health.

Also read: What makes hemp a superfood?

Even if a food item has an enviable nutritional profile, it needs to be easily available for it to become a part of your daily diet. It is easy to feel disheartened when you google ‘top superfoods’ and eight out of ten foods recommended by a US-based website are either not easily available in India or are very expensive. For example, blueberries and blackberries are often sold in exorbitantly priced tiny boxes on the shelves of gourmet food stores. Since these are flown in from thousands of kilometres away, they are bound to be priced accordingly. However, foods like amla, tomatoes and green moong are always around for the picking.

Everyday Superfoods: By Nandita Iyer, Bloomsbury India, 272 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
Everyday Superfoods: By Nandita Iyer, Bloomsbury India, 272 pages, 799.

Sometimes, due to the sheer marketing money behind a product, apples grown in the U.S. appear more easily available to us than the Bangalore Blue grapes grown locally. Eating food from thousands of miles away comes with its own problems. The carbon footprint that comes with such food is a blot on sustainable eating. Also, transporting food takes anywhere from days to weeks, and delicate nutrients like water-soluble vitamins are prone to get affected over a few days, with exposure to heat and light. Additionally, the transportation and import duties make this a very expensive proposition.... India, being a large country with diverse geographies and food habits, has so many more local superfoods to offer, such as the millets in Karnataka and the amaranth in Uttaranchal.

When we eat a superfood for its nutritional benefits, it makes no sense if the liver has to work overtime removing the pesticides and other chemicals that may have been used in its cultivation. Anything that is industrially produced in the world cannot qualify as a superfood…. It has been proven that foods in season are chock-full of nutrients as compared to their off-season counterparts. On the other hand, frozen fruits with no other additives are a better choice because these are plucked during peak ripeness and, therefore, retain a good level of nutrients.

Also read: Meet teff, yet another ancient grain that could become a new 'superfood'

Ideally, a superfood should not come out of a packet. However, concessions can be made for a few processes, such as milling, grinding, and freezing. Reading the nutrition label on the packaging is a good indicator of how processed the food is. A short list of ingredients with the superfood ingredient listed first, no added sugar, salt, fillers and preservatives are some of the pointers to keep in mind while checking the labels.

Even if the superfood is listed as one of the ingredients, do check how much of it is actually present in the product. ‘After going through processing, does the finished product still qualify as a superfood?’ is a question you should ask of all the products jostling for space in health food stores with the words ‘superfood’ written on them in big jazzy fonts.

Excerpted from Everyday Superfoods by Nandita Iyer, with permission from Bloomsbury India. The excerpt has been lightly edited and formatted.

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