The Term 'Superfood' Is Bullshit, but so Is the Science Community's Attitude Towards It.

4 min read

What does superfood mean? Nothing really. Scientifically nothing. Kale, quinoa and blueberries are all nutritious foods, but so are many other foods. The food industry markets certain foods as superfoods to bolster sales. Imports of blueberries to the EU rose from 130 million US dollars in 2010 to 282.2 million in 2014.

Prominent dietitians, food scientists and nutritionists have placed the super food myth in the same class as detoxes, juice diets and foods claiming to treat cancer. The latter 3 can be extremely harmful if adopted by consumers, but marketing a food because it has more health benefits – is that really a bad thing? Yes and no. The issues that health professionals, including myself have with the term superfood are:

  • We should be getting a variety of foods in our diet.

  • Labelling foods as good and bad can lead to unhealthy relationships with food.

  • Affording foods with a superfood status could lead to people wrongly thinking that they should consume that food at the expense of others.

  • Some foods are good for you, they just aren’t really THAT good for you.

  • Naturopaths and other anti-science people wrongly push these superfoods as being so powerful, that they could help treat things like cancer and other diseases.

I like to credit the average consumer with having some common sense at least, so I don’t think there are many people out there who only eat superfoods and nothing else. But there are nutrition social media influencers out there who go a bit cray cray and have a million ways how to make a kale smoothie for breakfast lunch and dinner, or Instagram accounts that are devoted entirely to avocados.

Calm down.

But there are consumers who hear something once, which then gets embedded into their brain. Using my dad as an example, he was told by his GP that he may want to drink some Ribena to get more vitamin C in his diet (shit advice if you ask me, but that’s another story). My dad follows advice to the letter, and he was drinking 3 glasses a day religiously for a long time. I bought into kale myself, but the only way I could eat it is if it’s baked in so much oil and seasoning that it negated any of the

benefits. Chillies are a staple condiment in my kitchen. There’s evidence that capsaicin can aid fat oxidation, but this doesn’t mean you don’t still need to be in a calorie deficit, and you still need to eat a balanced diet. Yet supplement companies cash in on the claims producing capsaicin tablets, leading people to believe in yet another magic pill for fat loss. You’ll often hear about their high vitamin C content. But to get close to the amount you find in an orange you need to eat about 100g of the things, and even the strongest of stomachs would have trouble coping with that.

Despite all of this, I’m sick of hearing the negativity surrounding superfoods.

I don’t have a PhD yet, but I would like to embark on one, one day. I love science. But there is an element of snobbery among the science community. Among peers fine. You want to look down your nose at someone because they didn’t study straight chemistry – I can deal with that. But looking down your nose at people for believing something they really have no reason to doubt, can affect the public’s perception of science. Be angry with the people that push the pseudoscience, not the people that buy into it. Even the biggest names in science communication need to work on their communication better. There’s a time and a place for abrasiveness and shock factor social media posts, but mocking people for making better food choices – really?

With nutrition, there’s so many contradicting messages, and if people are making positive changes to their diet by consuming more ‘superfoods’, cut them some slack. One year it's blueberries, the next it was quinoa, at the moment it's avocados. There will always be the latest fad and marketing ploy. It’s our job as health professionals to inform our patients and clients. So, do that, but don’t alienate them by making them feel stupid. Empower them with knowledge instead.