Superfoods: healthy miracle or pricey fad?

Superfoods are getting a lot of publicity lately.  Previously unknown foods such as acai berries, goji berries and chia seeds are now enjoying a huge marketing push lauding them as life-changing miracle foods.  It’s become commonplace among the health conscious to blend them into smoothies, and the people we surveyed swear they feel healthier and more energetic since adding them to their diet. Wellness Cafe’s (scrumptiously delicious) Superfood Shake has become a local phenomenon in Cape Town. At R36.95, it’s also one of the most expensive smoothies on their menu. So is it worth the cost to add them to your diet, or is this just more marketing hype? Moneybags investigates.

What is a superfood?

There is no clear-cut definition of a superfood.  In theory they should be higher in vitamins, minerals and overall nutritional value than most other foods. It’s common knowledge that snacking on less nutrient-dense foods can leave us feeling sluggish or unfulfilled as our body is still ‘hungry’ for minerals.  Some claim that eating superfoods will mineralize your body, thereby removing that ‘hungry’ feeling.

However, it is important to note that there isn’t a standardised, scientific way of testing which foods qualify as ‘super’.  With no legal standards or definitions set in place, it’s easy for advertising agencies to exploit this term. ‘Superfoods’, therefore, is not a scientific definition but one marketers prefer.

“In my opinion, there is no such thing as a ‘superfood’ and the name is just a lot of marketing hype,” says
Nigel Sunley, BSc (Hons) Chemistry, MSc Food Science, member of the South African Association of Food Science and Technology and technical consultant to the Food Industry. “One has to look carefully at the actual chemical composition of the product and understand what beneficial macronutrients and micronutrients are present in it and at what levels. Some products do contain significant levels of particular substances which may be mildly beneficial but the levels are very unlikely to be sufficient to produce the much hyped life-changing benefits that the manufacturers typically attribute to the products.”

We asked Peter Daniel, raw food chef and owner of Soaring Free Superfoods for his response to scientists that regard these products as a marketing fad. “We have many books on the various superfoods full of properly researched scientific studies on their health benefits. For example some health benefits of Cacao can be found here,” he said. “I would also add that many nutritionists and food scientists still think there is nothing wrong with conventionally grown pesticide laden foods, even though there is a huge amount of research indicating the danger of consuming poison.”

The first foods to make it onto the superfood hit list were those available to us at the local supermarket: broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, blueberries. However, this article focuses on the new additions to the superfood party: the more obscure foods which, by the very power of their exotic names seem to carry with them magical, transformational powers. Or so the labels say.

The labelling issue

Reading labels carefully often brings about a few surprises. Of course, there’s the old classic: ‘100% orange juice’ in big, bold letters, with the tiny word ‘blend’ peeking out from below. Or products claiming to be ‘sugar free’ which instead contain fructose, a product which still raises your blood sugar levels and can be dangerous for a diabetic. To add to these already misleading labels, we are now stumped with the ambiguous claims of superfoods. The Superfoods Organic Spirulina pack, for example, claims that spirulina is “one of the most complete sources of nutrition on earth, because it has the remarkable ability to convert sun energy into vital substances!”

It’s possible that superfoods are high in nutrients and therefore good for your health. The deception is in the magical qualities assigned to them and the implication that other (more affordable) foods aren’t as beneficial to us.

This raises some important legal issues. The Consumer Protection Act prohibits the conveying of misleading product information to the public and many of these sorts of products are on very thin ice in this area. Under South African law, almost all health and nutrition claims for foods and beverages are prohibited. “This will change in the near future as legislation is expected which will lay down specific criteria for making claims, however the criteria are expected to be very stringent in order to (rightly) protect the public from unsubstantiated marketing hype of exactly the type put out by the manufacturers of these products,” says Sunley. “It is unlikely that any of these products will be able to meet whatever criteria are used, as they will undoubtedly be based on a requirement for proper scientific substantiation.”

According to food scientists such as Sunley, there needs to be a good level of proper scientific substantiation for the products’ claims to be credible.  These studies and their results would be published in peer reviewed scientific journals. “My experience is that the manufacturers of products of this type can rarely if ever produce this and instead hide behind emotional and largely anecdotal information or use disclaimers,” says Sunley.

Should you buy superfoods?

There are certain instances in which these shakes are worth their weight in gold. Firstly, when blended together with the right ingredients, they can be a real treat. “The reason why people go mad over them is because they feel they have found a healthy fast food option,” says nutritional therapist Sara Bilbe.” “Fresh, whole food is always best, but in our busy society, food is often placed second to other activities and so smoothies can be useful additions to diets for a lot of people.”
It’s an expensive snack, though. A handful of nuts and berries or a fresh spinach and celery juice would cost you less and have similar benefits.

The experts’ verdict

“These types of shakes can be very useful to use along with a good diet to help boost nutrient levels. They should not replace main meals, but rather be used as a between meal snack to help supplement and sustain energy and nutrient levels in your busy day,” says Bilbe.

“I personally feel that the products concerned are a complete waste of money,” says Sunley. “If people want to consume them because they taste good that is obviously their prerogative, but the nutritional and health benefits over and above those derived from a sensible balanced diet are in my opinion frankly negligible.”

Moneybags says:

It’s possible that superfoods have a high nutritional value. If you have some extra cash to spend, they make a tasty, nutrient-packed treat. However, there is currently no scientific evidence that they are any better than other, more affordable foods such as broccoli, spinach or pumpkin seeds. Until these superfoods become more widely available and less costly, you can simply stay healthy (and wealthy) by eating a balanced diet of fresh foods.