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The Modern Myth of Superfoods

The term Superfoods entered the dictionary in the early twentieth century. In the 60’s and 70’s it was frequently used in conjunction with the word “cultural “. Cultural superfoods, by definition, were those foods which were a community’s main source of calories because of which they acquired a tremendous religious, cultural, historical and mystical hold on particular societies acquiring a semi divine significance to its people.

Often these foods, generally staples, were cultivated and ingested to the exclusion of other nutritious foods and unless supplemented with other foods , led to malnutrition in the immediate population as proved by Derrick Brian Jeliffe and his wife Eleanore Patrice, experts in the field of infant and cross cultural nutrition. Thus rice in South India, Steamed Plantain (Matoke) in Buganda, Wheat bread in Europe and  Maize in Central America, having this socio religious significance, were classified as Cultural Super foods. *1

Today the usage is somewhat different.

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As the link between diet and disease becomes increasingly apparent to all consumers around the world, the interest in healthy eating grows and components of our daily diet are being investigated more closely by scientists, doctors, nutritionists, agriculturalists, dieticians and big business. The idea behind such close examination is to find and, perhaps, prove that some foods provide more than basic nutrition, that they function at a higher level than other foods. These functions would be to A. Prevent disease, especially chronic illness like cardio vascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer. B. Assist better early development and growth c. Prevent weight gain and/or assist in weight reduction. D. Prolong life.

It is in this context that the term Super Foods is frequently used today. The meaning of the word as described in the MacMillan Dictionary is "a food that is considered to be very good for your health and that may even help in some medical conditions" and in The Oxford Dictionary thus – "A nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being".

Now consider the following: "Is Yogurt the New Superfood?", "Fruit of the Gods" ,"Can pomegranate juice put a halt to middle aged spread","The A-Z of eating yourself younger", "Forget Vitamin pills, Superfoods are the real thing"

Do these titles sound familiar? These and a thousand books, articles and programmes in the media hype the benefits of specific foods today. They pick out particular foods and tout them as being invaluable in the prevention and treatment of diseases, obesity and aging.

Like movie stars, particular foods grab the headlines each year. Last year it was acai and kale, this year its Matcha , Sacha inchi, green powders, bee pollen, Buffalo Berries, hemp hearts, Manuka Honey and nutritional yeast.

You would be forgiven if you haven’t heard of some of them. It seems that the more far flung the source the higher its healing potential.

Let us examine just a few of these foods and the reality of the claims-

  • Acai Berry, (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) Euterpe oleracea is the fruit of an palm tree that grows in the Amazon. It is said to be dense in amino acids, anti oxidants and essential fatty acids while being a great source of phytosterols.It has been promoted as a superfood in the rapid reduction of weight .However there is no scientific evidence based on human trials to prove that there is any health related purpose on which it can be promoted as a food. Research on rats that were given the juice, revealed no change in body weight as compared to controls. *2
  • Aloe Vera: This succulent is known to be rich in amino acids, antioxidants, enzymes, calcium, magnesium, and potassium .There are a wide range of therapeutic claims for the use of aloe vera, as a digestive aid , to lower blood glucose and to  lower cholesterol . In a review by Vogler and Ersnt -“Ten studies were located. They suggest that oral administration of aloe vera might be a useful adjunct for lowering blood glucose in diabetic patients as well as for reducing blood lipid levels in patients with hyperlipidaemia….CONCLUSION: Even though there are some promising results, clinical effectiveness of oral or topical aloe vera is not sufficiently defined at present.”  *3
  • Goji  Berries: The fruit of an evergreen found in Mongolia China and Tibet, it is   said to protect eyes from degenerative diseases, is high in antioxidants and carotenoids that may protect the eyes from degenerative diseases.They are  also rich in amino acids, vitamin C, vitamin E, fatty acids, and B vitamins. Investigations of the fruit have focused on proteoglycans, known as " Lycium barbarum polysaccharides", which showed antioxidative properties and some interesting pharmacological activities in the context of age related diseases such as atherosclerosis and diabetes. As to the root bark, several compounds have demonstrated a hepatoprotective action as well as inhibitory effects on the rennin/angiotensin system which may support the traditional use for the treatment of hypertension.*4

“Four randomized, blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials were pooled to study the general effects of oral consumption of Lycium barbarum at 120 mL/day, as a standardized juice…..Compared with the placebo group (n=80), the active group (n=81) showed significant improvements in weakness, stress, mental acuity, ease of awakening, shortness of breath, focus on activity, sleep quality, daydreaming, and overall feelings of health and well-being under a random effects model.” *5

 

  • Turmeric : This spice has traditionally been used in India for its anti bacterial and antiseptic properties. Lately it has been lauded for its active ingredient Curcumin which is said to lower cholesterol and combat cancer.  However a minimum amount of 150 gms of turmeric would have to be eaten daily for it to have any medicinal effect.*6

 

  • Kale: (Brassica oleracea acephala) They are said to “prevent oxidative stress, induce detoxification enzymes, stimulate immune system, decrease the risk of cancers, inhibit malignant transformation and carcinogenic mutations, as well as, reduce proliferation of cancer cells”.  However there also have anti nutritive properties which become significant if eaten frequently and if not balanced by the intake of other vegatables.*7

 

 

  • Brocolli : A high intake of cruciferous vegetables, of which Brocolli is one, has been associated with lower risk of lung and colorectal cancer. ” Small preliminary trials in humans suggest ..may be beneficial in treating conditions related to human papilloma virus infection, but larger randomized controlled trials are needed.”*8

 

  • Pomegranate: Pomegranates are now sold everywhere and its price is now at least 100% more than a few years ago when its age-fighting antioxidants weren’t so well known or advertised. It is said to have three times as much as found in red wine and green tea. While recent studies show “that pomegranate fruit is indeed a source of biologically active compounds”(*9) there have not been clinical trials to show its effect in the human body.

 

 

  • Quinoa: Pronounced keen-wa. 2103 was declared the Year of Quinoa by the United Nations. This recently rediscovered ancient “grain” (it is actually a grass seed)  is under the spotlight for possessing tons of health benefits. Quinoa is loaded with fiber, essential amino acids like Lysine, and valuable minerals. It is said to have a heart healthy impact like other true whole grains and may fight migraines too. Trails prove that has more benefits than other cereals but again further research is required to scientifically prove actual healing properties.

    Lists and lists of “superfoods “abound many of them including the ones     mentioned above. On investigation most of them cannot claim any special place in the diet even though many are hand picked to form lists of life savers by the likes of Dr Oz, and other TV health professionals.

While basic nutrition and the rising cost of food remains a serious problem in many developing countries and delivering inexpensive foods which are packed with nutrients, becomes the focus of governments, at the other end of the spectrum adequate income, indeed affluence, has led to such a change in lifestyles where the problem is decreasing energy expenditure and higher consumption i.e. sedentary lifestyles and calorie rich diets. The well-to-do are in search of nutrient dense foods with low calorie counts. Thus the search for “new” food to fill this need has led to a reinvention and re-presentation of many foods in an imaginative light. Here the interest is not in reducing costs. In fact it has contributed to the pricing of some grains, fruits and vegetables to a level beyond the reach of the common man.

As food increasingly becomes the business of big business it is necessary to examine the motives behind picking out particular foods and thrusting them into the foreground. How much has to do with indiscriminate propaganda to promote sales worldwide. Take the case of soya. What agricultural lobbies are behind this?  Which companies or countries stand to gain?

 In 2007 the European Union prohibited the use of this term to describe or advertise any food. This action was taken to protect the consumer in the very vulnerable area of food choice. Decisions of diet based on inaccurate labeling and false claims could endanger the health of a large percentage of the population.

Rachel Pickel, a health and nutrition consultant to Unicef  says “ the term is used heavily (and I would say indiscriminately) in US food marketing, especially for products being sold in the likes of Whole Foods Market. I am fairly certain that the use of the term "superfood" is not regulated in the States. …. the idea ( of good nutrition) is much less about trying to maximize consumption of "superfoods", and rather about dietary diversity/variety with vegetables and fruits figuring prominently in an idealized diet”.

Ishi Khosla, Clinical Nutritionist & Founder- ‘The Weight Monitor’ Founder- Whole Foods India & Founder president- Celiac Society For Delhi, (while supplying  her own list of Superfoods),  “ feel(s) that it may be better to take from the Japanese their approach to super foods also called functional foods . The Government researches such foods and has certain benchmarks on the basis of which they are given a special status and put in the category of Foods for special health uses (FOSHU). A FOSHU food is labelled and it makes it easier  for a consumer to make healthful choices . It also helps regulates this sector tightly and promotes a healthy competition in the market. “

In conclusion it seems to me that the term ”superfoods” are part of  the vocabulary of the gym, the fitness centre, the ‘health’ centre with no qualified doctor, the health evangelist with pseudo science and medical quackery, the farmers  market, and most of all of food supplement advertising. The term answers the call for a magic remedy and like all magic needs to be treated with a healthy amount of cynicism.

A particular food cannot be given prominence because of its nutrients which exist in vitro. How these nutrients behave in vivo, in life, is what matters. Nutrigenomics is an emerging science but greater sophistication is needed to measure gene expression amongst other things. Much more research needs to be done on how foods react in the human body, how they combine with each other and in exactly what way nutrients can actually work to combat disease as well as enrich and prolong life. While research and trials on many foods continue it cannot be said with any certainty that any food deserves to be called a “Superfood” .

Today many alternative "health practictioners" in India set up a business and prescribe eating vast amounts of particular foods they call Superfoods. An enormously obese practitioner I know advises drinking “shots” of pure lime juice as a superfood, a panacea for everything; over eating, over drinking, cancer, heart disease and aging. Obviously in her case it does not work for improving professional ethics.

 

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  Journal of the American Diet Assoc. 2009 Nov

  • *3 . Vogler BK, Ernst E. Aloe vera: a systematic review of its clinical effectiveness   The British Journal of General practice .No 49, 1999 Oct
  • *4  Potterat O . Goji (Lycium barbarum and L. chinense): Phytochemistry, pharmacology and safety in the perspective of traditional uses and recent popularity. Planta Med. 2010 Jan
  • *5 Paul Hsu CH1Nance DMAmagase H.A meta-analysis of clinical improvements of general well-being by a standardized Lycium barbarum.

 J Med Food. 2012 Nov

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