According to science and medicine, the technical definition of a superfood is — just kidding, there is no official definition. It’s a marketing term.
But it’s one that’s taken hold in the modern psyche, conjuring ideas of natural health and rediscovering ancient wisdom.
In the European Union there are restrictions around being able to claim something is a superfood. But it’s not regulated in Australia, in contrast to the words “organic” and “fair trade”.
But just because the word “superfood” doesn’t have an official meaning doesn’t make the word meaningless — otherwise it wouldn’t be a selling point, said Jessica Loyer, whose PhD research looked at Australians’ attitudes to superfoods.
“People are feeling disenchanted with modern ways of eating and saying ‘let’s look towards the past’ or ‘let’s look towards so-called primitive societies for some inspiration as to how we can be healthier’,” Dr Loyer said.
Most consumers would understand the word to mean something with a higher nutrient density than other similar foods, said Emma Beckett, a nutrition scientist at the University of Newcastle.
But there’s usually something else that goes along with the label: an exotic backstory.
“Nutrient density, antioxidant content and usually it’s got some kind of X factor where there is some ancient, beautiful population of people eating it. That’s generally what people think when they hear superfood,” Dr Beckett said.
Foods that are often claimed to be superfoods vary. Coconut oil has been touted as a superfood because some claim it helps with weight loss, turmeric because it has some anti-inflammatory properties, and manuka honey because it can be antibacterial.
But some of the most commonly claimed superfoods are called so because of their high levels of antioxidants.
What’s an antioxidant again?
Unlike “superfood”, “antioxidant” is a word that has a scientific meaning.
Antioxidants are compounds that stop the chain reaction that produces free radicals which cause cell damage. And cell damage can go on to cause disease.
But the way we measure antioxidants can be a bit misleading.
For starters, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing with antioxidants, Dr Beckett said. Too many and they can act as pro-oxidants.
“Also, the difference between having antioxidants in a thing and how the antioxidants get into your blood is questionable and they don’t really have a lot of that evidence,” she said.
“There’s so many different types of antioxidants, so you can’t just say ‘this has antioxidants’.
“Which antioxidant is it? What are the benefits of that particular antioxidant? Are you deficient in that antioxidant already?
“If you’re not deficient in vitamin C there’s no point eating a food that’s super expensive just because it’s high in vitamin C.”
What’s more, superfoods touted as being “packed with antioxidants” don’t necessarily supply more than the humbler produce already in your fridge.
“There is a study, acai pulp versus apple sauce in the blood. Just as many antioxidants get into the blood with the apple sauce as the acai pulp. But no one’s going to believe that apple sauce is a superfood,” Dr Beckett said.
If fighting free radicals and cell damage is important to you, Dr Beckett said you’d be better off directing your efforts to avoiding those oxidising processes to begin with.
“If we live in a polluted city, if we eat high-fat foods, if we smoke, if we drink alcohol, all those things that we know are bad lifestyle habits, that generates free radicals,” she said.
“So instead of going ‘let’s put antioxidants in to cancel out the bad effects, how about we think about avoiding those bad habits to start with?”
But I read an article that said this berry kills cancer
The disconnect between the science that happens in a lab and how it is communicated to the public is where some of the problems with superfoods stem from, Dr Beckett said.
For starters, it’s very hard to accurately measure the effect a food has on our health, because there are so many lifestyle factors in the mix.
What else are you eating? Where do you live? Do you remember how many serves a week of this food you ate over the past 10 years?
Studies linking food to health are usually either population studies, which look at trends within a whole country where the food might be eaten, or lab studies, where very concentrated extracts are put on cells in a dish.
With the population studies, there are many other differences in the lifestyles of the people in that country that reducing health differences down to a single food is problematic.
And with lab studies, the dose the scientists are applying to the cells might be impossible to achieve just by eating the food.
“So to say that it kills cancer — it doesn’t kill cancer. If you extract the compounds from its concentrate, it kills cancer,” Dr Beckett said.
“But the general public doesn’t get that six degrees of separation thing that’s happening between the studies and the marketing.”
If a superfood really is nutritious, what’s the problem?
Nothing, if you really like eating that food and you have the money for it.
But throwing “super” labels on food reinforces the myth that eating healthily is expensive, and that a single food can be enough to compensate for an otherwise unhealthy diet or lifestyle, Dr Beckett said.
“If goji or acai or whatever is your favourite berry to eat, and you can afford it, go ahead,” she said.
“But don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s going to cure all your ills or make you live longer, because there’s a whole lot more to your diet or your lifestyle than just one or two superfoods.”
It’s also worth considering what it takes to supply a niche food to a hungry global market, Dr Loyer said.
“I’m more worried about the effects this kind of production has on producers in developing countries than I am on consumers who decide to spend a lot of money on exotic foods,” she said.
Dr Beckett pointed out that diet is the key thing we have control over to improve our health and longevity.
And if you need a guide, there’s an easy — and low cost — place to look.
“The Australian Dietary Guidelines. They have everything you need in terms of nutrient content. That’s, like, literally the point of them. That can be done for any lifestyle, on any budget,” she said.