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What's so SUPER about SUPERFOODS?

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

A city backdrop is superimposed by a white comic bubble that states: "What's so super about superfoods?!"

Faster selling than discounted Valentines Day chocolate.

More powerful than GOOP.

Able to set off media outlets with a single story!

Look! Up at the grocery store’s natural food aisle!

It’s bee pollen and acai berries!

It’s spirulina and wheatgrass!

No, no – it’s superfoods!!

But…what the heck are superfoods?

“Superfood” is a marketing term used to promote foods that are “superior” in certain nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. (1) To my knowledge, there is no one official definition of superfoods and no regulation on superfoods, which calls into question – what makes a superfood so “super”?

Here are some super issues I have with superfoods:

Lack of research supporting their “super” health benefits

When you Google the word “superfood” you are bound to come across lists upon lists of food products that claim to do wonders for your health like “prevent cancer” or “clear your arteries”. However, the scientific evidence is inconclusive, meaning there is no research supporting superfoods as being healthier than equivalent alternatives.

An acai berry and blueberry sporting red and blue superhero capes go head to head in a "who will win the superfood face off?!"

Take blueberries and acai berries for example. The two foods are comparable in nutrients and health benefits. Both boast high antioxidant and polyphenolic compounds, which have been associated with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as improve cognition and heart health. But acai berries are far more difficult to find in their raw form in grocery stores. In fact, when my dietitian bestie Emma (@consciouslivingwithemma) and I facilitated a presentation on superfoods, we figured acai berries would be easy to find.

However, after several trips to high-end grocery stores and natural food sections, we came up short and the only product we could find was this frozen pureed mix of acai berries. What we would come to learn is that humans cannot digest whole acai berries as their seeds make up about 95% of the berry, therefore, we only really consume the skins of acai berries (hence why stores only sell acai berries in their blended frozen or dehydrated powdered form).

Blueberries on the other hand are grown in Canada, making them relatively accessible.

The prices between the two are also astronomical (2019 price comparison: $2.50/100g of acai berries vs. ~$1.00/100g of blueberries), which brings me to our next point: the hefty price tag.

The nutrient profile per hundred grams of acai berries and blueberries are compared. For hundred grams, acai berries have seventy-three calories, zero grams of sugar, six grams of fat, three grams of dietary fibre, two grams of protein, four percent of calcium, nine percent of vitamin C, and six percent of iron. For hundred grams of blueberries, they have fifty-two calories, eight grams of sugar, zero point six grams of fat, three grams of dietary fibre, zero point six grams of protein, one percent of calcium, four percent of vitamin C and one percent of iron.

The hefty price tag

When you slap a hefty price tag onto something, everyone jumps to the conclusion that it is of better quality. The same can be said with superfoods, which may be the reason why they are so dang popular. But when you start to add labels to expensive foods and claim that they are healthier, you are inherently telling people who can’t afford them that good health is unachievable for them.

Which is not the case!! There are plenty of inexpensive foods that are packed with nutrients – canned lentils and legumes, whole wheat products, locally grown fruits and vegetables are a few to name!

And when you eat these groups collectively, and in a balanced way, you will see the health benefits…which brings us to our last point.

Taking a reductionist approach to food is flawed.

One food alone is not the magic bullet to health. We need to think holistically. The interplay of each food group in our meals and snacks plays an important role in achieving a healthy diet. Holding one food over the other and stating that you need to have it because it is “healthier” and “better” for you is just dang exhausting.

Bottom line: Choose foods, and more importantly, enjoy foods, that will contribute to a balanced diet made up mostly of plants, whole grains, and protein.


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