Superfoods. The name started out as a way to describe nutrient-dense, natural produce, which we could incorporate into our diet and benefit from a nutritional boost. However, some have always maintained that the term is merely a clever marketing ploy to get people to buy exotic and expensive produce.
From smoothies to porridge, food and drink manufacturers are increasingly creating “super” products, and it seems that we can’t buy them fast enough. Fitness First Clubs’ resident health and fitness expert, personal trainer, qualified nutritionist and Bikini Fitness champion, Carly Tierney (pictured below), has some strong views on the whole superfood phenomenon.
“The term ‘superfoods’ provokes controversy in my mind and I do believe that clever marketing can and does encourage people to buy expensive items such as chia seeds, acai and goji berries,” she commented.
Should so-called superfoods be better regulated?
Who gets to decide what a superfood is anyway? For all intents and purposes, anyone can grow vegetables in their back garden, stick a superfood label on them and sell them for three or four-times their market value.
“The actual word itself is used without any legal or regulatory requirement regarding what defines a superfood,” Carly added.
“Companies that market these items do perhaps capitalise on a general lack of public understanding around nutrition and fuel our endless search for a miracle health or beauty product with overblown claims around their nutritional value and celebrity endorsement which makes these foods appear exotic, fashionable and new.”
Has our own lack of awareness driven the superfood craze?
When you’re looking for informed debate on a topic of this nature, Reddit is usually a good place to start. We asked people for their thoughts on superfoods, and it was clear from some of the responses that we received that the marketers haven’t pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.
Here are some of the comments that came through...
According to Carly, we shouldn’t necessarily place the blame on marketers - we need to increase our own awareness of the nutritional pros and cons of the food and drink that we put into our bodies.
“The marketing industry exists to sell and it's clearly our choice as to whether we consume the items they advertise. The root cause of the debate is surely our embarrassingly limited knowledge and understanding of basic nutrition, which as a nation I believe needs to change,” she continued.
“We should be able to differentiate between what is a trendy marketing attempt and real science, and be educated enough to realise that nutritionally-dense foods lurk on the bulk aisles of supermarkets and even in our own gardens. Perhaps then we would refer to bananas and oranges as superfoods, too?
“In my opinion the term superfoods implies that a food is better than other foods and doesn’t highlight the need for an overall balanced diet. I, however, don't think we should lay blame on the marketers who are after all taking advantage of our own ignorance and want for a quick fix.”
So, should we avoid anything that has “Superfood” on the label?
Absolutely not. This article was never intended to completely pan superfoods, more to raise awareness of the point that this relatively new-fangled term shouldn’t pressure you into paying over the odds for “trendy” foods when you visit the supermarket. You’ll be surprised at just how many normal, run-of-the-mill foods - the kind of stuff that we perhaps consume every day without realising the amount of nutrients that they give us - didn’t make the cut when the ultra-exclusive superfood category was being formed.
We asked the Reddit community to name some healthy and highly-nutritious foods that don’t necessarily fall under the superfood banner.
We’ve also taken a closer look at some popular superfoods to find out if they do provide a power punch we can’t get elsewhere, or if we can cut through the hype and return to cheaper, local, everyday produce.
Kale is part of the cabbage family, providing us with Vitamins K, A, C and B6. Touted as one of the healthiest greens you can eat, a study published in 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that there were 14 more nutrient-dense greens you could incorporate into your diet, rather than kale. These included Romaine lettuce, spinach and parsley. However, topping the chart with a score of 100 out of 100 for nutrient density was watercress.
Chia seeds are a small black seed which you can add to porridge, smoothies, or soak for a healthy dessert. A great source of Omega-3, they are perfect for those who choose not to eat fish! They also aid in slowing down digestion, which can help those who have Type-2 diabetes.
That being said, they do cost an arm and a leg, a 500g tub costs upwards of £10. You can substitute chia seeds with flax seeds, which are much cheaper, but still have similar nutritional value.
The United Nations declared 2013 as “The Year of Quinoa”. Containing all nine of the amino acids that our bodies cannot produce naturally, quinoa is packed with protein and is arguably the flag bearer for the superfood revolution.
However, we’ve reached the point where many people are eating it because it’s cool. Carly notes that there are much cheaper, though probably less exotic, alternatives. She commented: “The more humble rice and beans combo is arguably less trendy than quinoa, but nutritionally superior in its protein and amino acids content.”
Quinoa can form a key part of a balanced diet, but don’t become too reliant on it.
Acai berries took the nation by storm a few years ago, with health stores selling juice concentrates, capsules and promoting them as an aid to weight loss. Unfortunately for those looking for a quick fix, there have been very few studies to provide hard evidence for their credentials.
Acai oil is used in some skincare products, due to its high levels of antioxidants, although this may also be because it’s safer to use than other plant oils. Carly told us that “goji and acai berries are full of phytochemicals, but so [are] blueberries and strawberries, which are much less expensive.”
It might seem strange to say that chocolate is good for you, however Cacao and Cocoa are made from the same bean. Cacao is much less processed than Cocoa, meaning it is incredibly nutrient dense. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can dig straight into that bar of Dairy Milk though, once you start heating Cacao, adding dairy, sugar and other chemicals, nutrients are lost and it becomes unhealthy.
It is well known that 70% dark chocolate (in moderation) can be good for you, providing you with antioxidants and actually lowering cholesterol. You can use raw cacao powder in everything from smoothies to cakes, but if using as a chocolate replacement, be prepared as it is very bitter, and compensating for this might mean increased levels of sugar or other sweeteners, which will essentially nullify the benefits of introducing cacao into your diet.
Do superfoods live up to their hype?
In short, no. It is possible to get all the nutrients you need from produce you can get in your local supermarket, you just need to be savvy enough to find them! As soon as the word ‘superfood’ starts to appear on packaging, you can usually expect to pay a premium. Do your research and figure out how you can get your fix of essential nutrients from less glamorous, but no less beneficial foods. We’ve said in the past that eating healthily doesn’t have to cost you a fortune, and we’re sticking to our guns on this one!
Increasing our knowledge of food and nutrition can only be a good thing. A personal trainer will be able to assess your current diet and offer pointers as to where you can be making improvements that will help you to achieve your health and fitness goals. Get in touch today to see how they can help you.