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Health Defence Blog

Welcome to the Health Defence Blog - a blog about health, wellness and a healthier you. Brought to you by the Health Defence team at Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, you'll find up-to-date information on a range of topics from what's in your food to the latest advice on e-cigarettes!

You will, almost certainly, have come across the term ‘superfood’ before - it’s hard to miss!

“Lose 10 pounds by drinking green tea”

“Kale a cure for cancer!”

“Cure your (insert health condition) with this superfood!”

... the health claims are endless. But where did this term 'superfood' come from, what makes a food so ‘super’ and is there any truth to these claims?  Read on to find out if ‘superfoods’ really exist, or are they just the next ‘Super-fad’?

What is a ‘superfood’?

First, it would help to define this ambiguous term. Despite there being no recognised definition of 'superfood' in the medical community, the Oxford English Dictionary offers an explanation. The dictionary describes a 'superfood’ as “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.”

These so-called ‘superfoods’ are claimed to have ‘super-powers’ or extra-ordinary health benefits. Many are claimed to prevent or even cure a range of illnesses due to a certain nutrient or antioxidant present in them, for example, anthocyanins in blueberries. There’s a long list of foods that have been given 'superfood' status over the years – kale, blueberries beetroot, goji berries, green tea, pomegranate, quinoa, wheat grass and garlic, to name but a few.

Further, it’s not uncommon for these ‘superfoods’ to come with a hefty price tag, celebrity endorsement and clever packaging to make them look enticing!

Is there any evidence to support these claims?

Whilst its nice to think that eating a certain fruit or grain will grant us good health and cure illness, the evidence for these claims is at best inconclusive.

In fact, when you take a closer look at the studies where these ‘superfoods’ have been tested, there are many flaws and overall the evidence is weak. For example:

  • The size of studies – the studies are often small in the number of participants and also in duration (for example, tested on 10 people for one month). This is not enough to provide meaningful information on their effects, the amount of time they should be used for to get the effect, or whether this effect would be seen in everyone who used it. 

  • Not tested on humans! A number of these ‘superfood’ claims are made on the back of research done in a laboratory (sometimes using cells in a test tube) or in animal studies.

  • Amounts  used: the ‘superfood’ extracts used in research are often very concentrated, and not at levels that we would find naturally in food or amounts that we would want to consume – 28 bulbs of garlic with dinner anyone?

  • Supplement and powder form: to get such high concentrations, many ‘superfoods’ used in research are in powder form. For example, 22g of freeze-dried blueberry powder per day, rather than fresh fruit.

In response to the lack of robust evidence and misleading health claims, the use of the term ‘superfood’ on food labelling was actually banned in the EU in 2007. This saw a dramatic reduction in the use of this term on food labels and now if a food manufacturer wants to claim ‘superfood’ status on their product, they must provide strong evidence for this claim and an explanation as to why it is good for our health.

NHS Choices provide an excellent summary of the evidence behind 10 so-called ‘superfoods’ – click here to find out more about these false health claims. 

Marketers and food manufacturers want you to buy their product and therefore will use any term they can and clever marketing to tempt you to buy it.

Why can ‘superfood’ labelling be unhelpful?

What happens when we don’t eat ‘superfoods’ – does it mean that other foods are less healthy and not ‘super’ enough for us?

No.

Whilst it is true that eating a healthy diet will reduce our risk of diseases such as heart disease and stroke, it’s misleading and untrue to think that one ‘magical’ food could do the same. If this were true, doctors and health professionals would be the first to promote it!

This type of labelling becomes especially unhelpful when people think that by eating a ‘superfood’ they can reverse the damage from a weekend of binge drinking, scoffing a packet of crisps or years of cigarette smoking. In fact, the belief that we can un-do this damage through a ‘quick fix’, may only encourage poor habits and in turn increase our risk of disease in the long term.

So what should we eat?

Whilst these so-called ‘superfoods’ don’t live up to the ‘super’ status that we have been lead to believe, there’s nothing against eating these foods as part of a balanced diet.

Kale, blueberries, quinoa and pomegranate – they’re all healthy, nutrient-packed foods that we should be encouraged to eat. BUT avoid the hype, and eat them because they taste delicious and provide you with good nutrition, and not because they’ll make you look 10 years younger or give you a six-pack.

No single food provides all the nutrients we need, and that’s why the Eatwell Guide encourages us to eat a range of foods from all of the food groups – fruits and vegetables, wholegrain carbohydrates, low fat dairy products and lean meat, fish, beans and pulses. For more on this, read our recent ‘Eatwell Plate gets an update’ blog.

The Eatwell Guide

The Eatwell Guide

In summary, we can’t go wrong by eating more nourishing whole foods and fewer high fat/sugar/salt processed foods. Remember...

There is no such thing as a superfood.

“It’s a marketing term, not a scientific one”.

Superfood-BDA-image

 Image credit (top): © Flynn | Dreamstime.com - Healthy eating

***Disclaimer: always seek medical advice before starting a new diet, exercise regime or medication. The information in these articles is not a substitute for professional advice from a GP, registered dietitian or other health practitioner.

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