Superfoods are nothing but a deceitful yet wildly successful marketing strategy, and you have been suckered in, hook, line and sinker. In case you have been living under a rock, so called superfoods promise to clear your acne, rejuvenate your love life and cure your depression. OK, I hyperbolize slightly. But they do make bold and often unsubstantiated claims, relying on a combination of shoddy science and too-good-to-be-true PR strategies.
Blueberries, for example, are touted as a superfood because of their high levels of antioxidants, which supposedly fight oxidizing agents in the body called free radicals. The evidence for antioxidant theory is inconsistent, with most research showing no effect on disease risk and some even demonstrating a negative effect. The USDA no longer publishes data on antioxidant levels in food, citing evidence that suggests they have no bearing on human health.
Furthermore, many fruits contain antioxidants, so if you are into questionable science, there is no need to restrict your produce consumption to those with the highest levels. And if you believe that wild blueberries in particular provide the best source of nutrition, you can thank marketing for that, too: in the late 1990s, companies that produced these berries launched one of the first “superfood” campaigns, citing that frozen wild blueberries had twice the levels of antioxidants as fresh supermarket blueberries, and that they were proven to reduce risk of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Was this true? Not really. Did the strategy work? Of course it did. This is not to say that blueberries provide no health benefits, but they are no more “super” than any other fruit.
Or take nut butters. Why buy regular old peanut butter when you can choose exotic alternatives like almond, coconut, hazelnut or tahini butter? In reality, all contain fiber, fat, vitamins, minerals and protein. Perhaps in slightly different proportions, but unless these butters are your only source of these nutrients, you are going to be just fine with regular ol’ Skippy. Focusing on the minutiae of nutrients in a certain food is disordered eating. Habitually doing so can lead to an eating disorder called orthorexia, which is characterized by an extreme obsession with health. A person with this disorder may have an irrational fear of certain foods, and may subscribe to the idea that a “perfect diet” can result in perfect health. They spend a lot of time focusing on food and avoid social events where they cannot control which foods are served. They may even cut out entire food groups for non-ethical reasons. These behaviors are encouraged in today’s health-obsessed world, but they are not conducive to a healthy relationship with food. Eating should not provoke anxiety and fear; it should be a primarily pleasurable experience.
Aside from the psychological damage to individuals, the superfood craze has detrimental effects on farms and ecosystems. Much of superfood marketing relies on exoticizing foods that people in other parts of the world have been eating for millennia, introducing them as though they are newly-discovered health miracles. This can create a burden on other countries to produce enough to satisfy the demand of American and European consumers, which in turn has negative effects on the environment as more and more land is cleared for agriculture. Additionally, these foods must be imported, increasing their overall carbon footprint. For example, goji berries are grown in China and Tibet, agave in Mexico and quinoa in South America.
Exploitation of the resources in developing nations and their people is a legacy of colonialism. We cannot make the mistake of believing that all of our food is grown and harvested sustainably by fairly-compensated workers. Quinoa, a gluten-free grain high in protein, has been a staple in the diet of indigenous people in the Bolivian Andes for thousands of years. Once it was introduced to the American and European market as a superfood, demand increased and prices shot up. Today, most Bolivians cannot afford to buy quinoa, and are instead forced to buy other grains from the store. Because of the dramatic increase in monoculture farming, soil nutrients are depleted at a faster rate as compared to the sustainable traditional practices. This is heartbreaking, especially because it is wholly unnecessary — we are perfectly capable of getting sufficient nutrition from locally-grown food. Our voracious appetite for novel foods coupled with our fallacious belief that they can cure our ills is exploitative and cruel.
This all might seem a little doom-and-gloom, so I’ll offer you a kernel of hope. If you enjoy your superfoods, by all means, I am not here to rain on your kale parade. But in our pursuit of health, we need to be mindful of who is benefitting and who is losing out in the system of rampant consumption we have created. Superfoods will not provide any more benefit than the foods you have enjoyed since childhood. Most studies on superfoods require massive quantities of their active ingredients to demonstrate a positive effect on health, more than anyone would consider eating at a time. We can produce and consume nutrient-dense foods right here on our continent; some examples include sweet potatoes, fish and fish oil (or flaxseed, for vegetarians and vegans), avocados and pumpkin.
Regardless of which foods are billed as especially healthy, the consensus in the scientific community is clear: a healthy diet is composed of a variety of foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. I would add that incorporating flexibility into your eating patterns and allowing yourself to eat all foods can free up mental energy and allow you to focus on other health-promoting behaviors, such as stress management and sleep hygiene. Wellness is a multi-faceted experience, and as tempting as it is to get swept up in the hype of the newest superfood, it may do more harm than good.