True or false? Ten ‘superfoods’ under scrutiny
There’s plenty of hype around the wonders of ‘superfoods’ - things like blueberries, goji berries, kale and chia seeds. They are understood to be jam packed full of nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants, all important elements to support good health, but are these ‘miracle foods’, really all they are cracked up to be?
It seems the benefits of superfoods remains a bit of a grey area, with plenty of mixed messages available.
Sara Martinez, professor of Nutrition at the European University of Madrid said: "It is important to incorporate a wide range of food into the diet. These so-called ‘superfoods’ sometimes lack essential nutrients, so the name can be misleading."
With this in mind, Martinez goes on to say: "Although ‘superfoods’ are rich in various so-called beneficial ingredients, which can help the body to function effectively, the truth is, they don’t save lives.”
Laia Gómez, nutritionist at the Alimmenta Clinic in Barcelona, comments that there has been a widespread uptake in the consumption of ‘superfoods’, but she explains: "The problem is, many people think that it is enough to add these ‘superfood’ products as a token gesture to their meals to compensate for the imbalances caused by a bad diet. Superfoods do not counteract poor dietary choices.”
Here are the nutritional properties of ten ‘superfoods’ and experts’ verdicts on whether they’re truly super or not.
Blueberries are known to contain antioxidant properties, can help to promote good digestion and provide the body with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial elements.
Some studies suggest that blueberries could contain important elements to help prevent colon cancer. This research remains inconclusive, and "Until more scientific evidence is obtained, blueberries cannot be recommended as a measure to prevent cancer,'' said the nutritionist Dr Barbara Romano.
Blueberries and cranberries are well-known for their ability to protect against cystitis or urinary tract infections. Though, you will need to eat a large amount of fresh blueberries or cranberries to achieve this protective effect. Romano recommends to opt for: "Juices, capsules or concentrates to make consumption easier".
Dr. Romano says: "Blueberries have notable nutritional properties". She does not hesitate to recommend them to eaten within the context of a varied diet, but she would not say that it is a superfood because "on their own, they are not capable of improving health.”
According to Dr. Romano, "Quinoa contains a remarkable amount of protein, vitamin B and vitamin E, along with various minerals, especially iron.”
Are the components of this seed extraordinary beneficial?
Romano explains: “Iron present quinoa is ‘non-heme’ iron, meaning it is of plant-based origin. This type of iron is more difficult for the body to absorb. For quinoa to be used by the body to full capacity, it must be consumed with other foods that provide a good source of vitamin C.”
Quinoa is often used instead of other carbs, which has built up the misconception that it is a grain - quinoa is in fact a seed. This seed is said to help control cholesterol levels, contribute to weight loss, and can help to keep you regular. It seems these qualities would confirm that quinoa is a superfood, but are these assumptions true?
Dr Romano says: "To some extent.”
Quinoa is held in particularly high regard based on its protein content. It is a complete protein, a rare resource in the plant world. ‘Complete’ means that it contains all the essential amino acids that the body cannot make, and must therefore obtain from dietary sources.
"Quinoa contains a high level of insoluble fibre, it’s this that helps to keep your intestines in check and helps to prevent constipation”.
As for weight loss, the Romano attributes this to the fact that “quinoa makes us feel full, rather than offers the capacity to provide extra energy, like rice, for example”.
In short, no. The value of quinoa has been exaggerated by the agri-food industry, who quickly jumped on marketing hype focused on increasing the popularity of this seed. Overall, it does have a good amino acid profile and provides a complete protein source for vegans. Though, despite its positive properties, this seed is no more ‘miracle’ than other seeds or grains available. In Dr. Romano's opinion, "The idea that quinoa is a superfood, is not accurate”.
This root stands out, above all, for its mineral content. As the specialist Laia Gómez describes, "It is rich in calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, manganese, zinc and other trace elements".
Does the nutritional content of maca improve the immune system? Promote fertility? Restore hormonal balance in women and awaken the libido? These are the claims attached to this root that present it as a superfood.
Gómez says: "Sexual desire depends on environmental factors as well as psychological and physiological, so when considering consumption of certain products, whether it’s the food itself or in a supplement form, will not make any real impact on sexual desire.”
Regarding fertility, Gómez expresses himself even more firmly: "There are no studies to prove consuming a specific nutrient will impact fertility."
For the nutritional expert Gómez, "Neither the maca root nor other hypothetical superfoods are, indeed ‘super’”.
Cacao is considered one of the foods with the most antioxidants and has proven to help prevent memory loss associated with age. Dr Sara Martinez proved this in research carried out for her thesis on the benefits of cacao and coffee on health. The professor adds "cacao also contains theobromine, a stimulant equivalent to caffeine, and minerals such as magnesium”.
Cacao is believed to help protect against against cancer, some degenerative diseases and has anti-ageing properties. IT is also understood to help maintain the proper functioning of the cardiovascular system, and can help to regulate mood.
Though Dr. Martinez agrees with the positive properties that cacao contains, she says: "Although the benefit of cacao are highlighted in numerous studies, it is important to be aware that research on cacao tends to use particularly concentrated levels of this bean, suggesting you would need to consume a lot to benefit from the goodness of cacao”.
She also stresses that “The beneficial properties of cacao are associated with its purest form, not with derivatives such as chocolate.”
The verdict remains out on labelling cacao as a superfood. Dr Martinez believes: "It is one of the richest products in bioactive compounds, which suggests it would be beneficial to include cacao, in its purest form, in the diet”.
Nutritional value: it is not among the best known superfoods, but due to its properties, it looks to be one of the most promising. According to nutritionist Sara Martínez, spirulina, a biomass of cyanobacteria, "Represents an important dietary source of protein, which includes all the essential amino acids". It’s protein content is what gives it great health value.
Other benefits include: "all types of vitamin B. This food is of vegetable origin, rather than a type of seaweed, as was previously believed. Seaweed does contain higher levels of vitamin B than spirulina, but spirulina contains a good variety of minerals, such as iron and zinc.
It is one of the most effective foods to help fight against obesity, arthritis, intestinal ulcers, high blood pressure and infections. Experts also say spirulina has the ability to help prevent diabetes, heart disease and other chronic problems. Martinez comments: “It regulates the metabolism of lipids and carbohydrates in the blood”. It is also believed to be useful to help support the treat anemia.
For Martínez, spirulina resembles cacao. The label of ‘superfood’ seems to powerful, but he believes that "its characteristics make it undoubtedly worthy of the title of nutritional supplement, to be incorporated into a varied and balanced diet.”
Chia seed champions say their primary these seeds are special because they are rich in healthy fats, but this quality is also found in various other products. Nutritionist Laia Gomez says: "Nuts provide us with substantial levels of healthy fats, so there’s does not appear to be any real reason to single out chia as specifically outstanding”.
She quantifies her opinion by comparing the polyunsaturated fat content of 100g of chia seeds with the same amount of almonds and olive oil.
Chia seeds contain 23g of polyunsaturated fat compared to almonds that contain 12g and olive oil that contains 10g per 100g. In the light of this data, the expert concludes "The ‘exceptional’ qualities attributed to chia seeds it is not justified, as the difference pointed out can be covered with a handful of nuts a day, eating oily fish twice a week or cooking and seasoning with olive oil."
Health Effects: Advertising claims that its wealth of antioxidants protects the body from free radicals and, consequently, from ageing and cancer. Does this mean we should run and buy chia to make us look as fresh as a daisy? This claim seems far fetched. According to Gómez, "The body can obtain sufficient antioxidants without the need for any special foods or supplements, as the body has its own molecules with this function. Consuming a balanced diet is sufficient.”
The general consensus does not seem to lean towards chia seeds having nutritional superiority over others. The specialist concludes: "They don't have anything that we can't find in other foods".
In India and parts of Africa, moringa is referred to as the ‘tree of life’ and is considered a true source of health or as westerners would say a ‘superfood’. It’s levels of vitamin A, B and C would suggest this is correct.
According to Àlex Vidal, nutritionist at the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona, along with other benefits, "Moringa stimulates defences, relieves headaches, prevents hair loss and helps to control weight." The expert does however warn that these effects are not exceptional and emphasises the general tendency to assume that the doses of certain nutrients in foods are directly related to health related results. This is not the case "The power of the body to absorb vitamins and other nutritional substances is not always proportional to the amount of protein, vitamins or antioxidants they contain.”
In Vidal's opinion, the superfood brand is strong. Once again despite its positive properties, the term ‘superfood’ seems exaggerated.
Nutritional value: The consumption of goji berries skyrocketed from zero to hundred in a matter of months in the West. After an initial boom, the goji berry appears to have fallen by the waistline, despite its understood superfood status.
Let's be clear, the goji berry is full of nutrients.
Isabel Bertomeu, nutritionist from the Mediterranean Diet Foundation of Barcelona, confirms: "These small Himalayan berries have a high content of vitamin A and C, iron, copper, selenium and riboflavin (vitamin B2)."
Bertomeu explains: "These fruits have been used in China and Tibet for thousands of years to treat all kinds of ailments: headaches, high blood pressure, kidney and liver problems… to name just a few. They have even been used to help solve erectile dysfunction."
The functionality of this berry remains unconfirmed.
"Goji berries can be considered a great food, but not a superfood," says Bertomeu, who believes that more research, especially regarding human consumption, is still needed before they can be categorised in such a ‘super’ way.
Coconut water has a reputation for being both a refreshing drink and a good choice for hydration. Coconut water contains antioxidants, magnesium and other biologically active substances, but Àlex Vidal points out: "Unlike water, coconut water contains glucose and strange levels of potassium.”
It can be used as a useful way to re-hydrate after intense exercise, but it should not replace drinking water. In places where coconuts are typically grown, the water is often extracted directly from the fruit. These countries tend to have particularly hot climates (where you’ll likely find yourself sweating a lot), so drinking coconut water can help to quickly replace lost minerals as a result of sweating.
Coconut water might be the ideal drink if you happen to find yourself in a tropical country, such Brazil, Ecuador or Costa Rica, but it cannot be classified as a ‘superfood’. If you like the taste, feel free to drink it occasionally, but only for pleasure – it doesn’t contain superpowers.
Chlorella is a type of algae that grows in fresh water. It’s nutritional values include high amounts of protein, vitamins A, B2 and B3 and minerals such as iron, magnesium and zinc.
In the opinion of Dr. Bertomeu, it’s expensive, so "Daily intake would not be very profitable”. She proposes replacing it with vegetables with similar properties, such as broccoli, "which is less expensive and easy to find in almost all supermarkets.”
Health benefits: "This micro algae helps strengthens the immune system," explains Bertomeu. It can help to prevent constipation, flu or forms of fungal infections, such as thrush (candida). Other benefits include, “increasing the good bacteria in the intestines, which also helps to improve the digestive process" Bertomeu confirmed.
This algae contains proteins and antioxidants, but labelling as a ‘superfood’ - Bertomeut thinks is inappropriate.