Superfoods: a closer look

When it comes to food and health, the word “superfood” has become extremely popular. Generally speaking, superfoods refer to foods — especially fruits and vegetables — that contain certain nutrients that will result in a health benefit above that of other foods. The media is full of reports of these ultra-healthy foods, from acai and matcha to blueberries and salmon. We’re told that eating these foods will give our bodies the health kick they need to stave off illness and aging, but is there really any truth to these reports?

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In order to distinguish the truth from the hype, it is important to look carefully at the scientific evidence behind the media’s superfood claims. There are numerous studies that examine the effectiveness of superfoods and their health claims, but when looking these studies, certain things need to be considered:

  1. How many people took part in the study (if people were used at all). Amongst other things, power lies in numbers. In order for scientific evidence to be generalised to every-day life, enough people will have needed to experience a significant benefit from eating the given superfood. The fewer people were used, the less significant the results of the study. And remember, lab rats are not the same as humans! Studies conducted on animals are a good start to gathering scientific evidence, but there’s no guarantee that the same things will happen in humans.
  2. Who took part in the study? Look closely at the study population. A group of people with metabolic syndrome and extreme hypertension might have seen a reduction in blood pressure by eating a certain food, but that doesn’t mean it will work for someone with a normal weight and slightly raised blood pressure. What works in cancer patients might not work in diabetic patients. You catch my drift – you just can’t assume anything in science. You have to be specific about what you want to prove, and then you have to prove it with sound evidence to back you up.
  3. What form of the superfood was used? One major characteristic of research in this area is that they tend to use very high levels of isolated nutrients. If the study used beetroot juice, you can’t eat roasted beets and expect the same results, because the juice will have a higher concentration of antioxidants.  If the study used dried enriched broccoli sprouts (what even IS that?), then you can’t eat store-bought broccoli and be disappointed when your doctor tells you your cholesterol is still too high (this refers to a study sone by Bahadoran et al., 2012 – but more on that later). These high levels of nutrients are usually not realistically attainable in the context of a normal diet.
  4. Lastly, ask yourself, does this study reflect real life? Given that people normally consume combinations of foods, picking out a single one to study does not reflect real human consumption. If you were to somehow get hold of dried enriched broccoli sprouts, would you be willing to eat 10g of them ever day for the rest of your life? How much store-bought broccoli would you have to eat each day to reap the same benefits? What’s more, there is evidence to suggest that in some cases co-consumption of foods can actually increase the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. The beta-carotene in carrots and spinach, for instance, is more readily absorbed when eaten together with a source of fat (like avocado or olive oil). This hints at the merits of a diet based on a variety of nutritious foods as opposed to a diet based solely on one or a handful of superfoods.

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We already know that we can’t depend on a handful of superfoods in order to reach optimal health. You need to make sure you’re getting all your nutrients by eating a variety of fresh, wholesome foods and limiting the processed, packaged goods. But for the next few weeks, for the sake of all the superfoodie lovers out there, I’ll be looking at some of the studies on superfoods and sharing what I find.

Catch you soon!

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