Are Superfoods A Superhoax?

    avocados chopped in half
    Published 29 October 2020. Written by Nicola Downs.

    The world is super crazy right now. No, not for those reasons but for the ever-growing list of ‘super’ foods that are claimed to be so nutrient-dense they should probably wear a cape. 

    The buzz is no longer just focused on avocados, blueberries and spinach, either. Hardly a month goes by without a new super-powered ingredient shimmying its way into every supermarket, Insta feed or fashion-forward menu.  

    Whether a ‘super spice’ like turmeric popping up in soups, a ‘super veg’ such as beetroot being thrown into every smoothie, or a ‘super seed’ like chia (which to be fair has come a long way from its ‘frogspawn’ days!) being scattered over porridge left, right and centre, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the hype. Even some pet-food brands are now on board, adding everything from seaweed to spirulina to their products. 

    After all, why settle for boring old good health when choosing foods containing these mystical ingredients could make you – and your dog – even healthier?     


    Be super sceptical   

    So, what does it take for a food to be deemed super? ‘The term superfood has no actual definition – it’s not a scientific term or one you’ll ever find in a nutrition textbook,’ says Priya Tew, a specialist dietician from Dietitian UK. ‘In practice, it’s often used as a marketing tool to get attention and to encourage us to buy these foods.’ In other words, any food that contains nutrients can be dubbed ‘super’. 

    So, if there’s a food that’s become a little unpopular or forgotten about (kale, we’re looking at you), playing up its nutritional benefits encourages us to spend. ‘A superfood’s appeal tends to go in waves, usually driven by social media influencers and advertising budgets,’ says Emma Bardwell, a registered nutritional therapist. ‘Superfoods such as goji berries, chlorella, coconut oil and açaí are tricky to source, come from far-flung places and are invariably expensive – but they’re not a miracle cure, they’re just foods. 

    ‘For instance, coconut oil is actually a saturated fat and so needs to be used in moderation, not added to everything as some wellness bloggers would have you believe.’ 

    Know your nutrients 

    Don’t get us wrong, this doesn’t mean that superfoods don’t contain valuable nutrients but, if you squint hard enough, a lot of food could be described in the same way. Take avocados. Yes, they contain monounsaturated fat, which can help to protect your cardiovascular system, but so does olive oil, rapeseed oil, and spreads made from these oils, as well as nuts such as almonds and Brazil nuts. 

    Meanwhile, the hipsters of the fermented food world such as kombucha, kefir, tempeh and kimchi may support gut health and digestion, but regular plain yoghurt also contains natural probiotics (FYI, most plain yoghurt in the UK is ‘live’) and we know what we’d rather have for breakfast. 

    And did you know that 100g of the humble tinned baked beans contains 5g of plant-based protein, whereas 100g of cooked quinoa has 4g? You get the picture. 

    Think quantity as well as quality 

    The other thing to consider is the quantity of the food you need to reap the benefits. Sure, weight-by-weight, kale may contain more vitamin B or antioxidants than, say, broccoli, spinach or carrots, but eating more of these vegetables will get you to the same destination. 

    In fact, when it comes to five-a-day portions, four heaped tablespoons of cooked kale counts as one portion, compared to just two broccoli spears. And, in many homes, we suspect a big bowl of broccoli will be eaten more eagerly than that of kale.   

    In fact, there are lots of firm favourites that are super in their own way. For instance, did you know that potatoes contribute 14 per cent of our total average daily vitamin C intake in the UK? Or that oats are proven to reduce cholesterol levels? Meanwhile, two medium eggs contain 32 per cent of our RDA of vitamin D – a nutrient that many of us are lacking in the UK.

    ‘The best real superfoods are the ones you enjoy eating regularly and that give you the most bang for your nutrient buck, whether that’s leafy greens, berries, eggs, garlic, olive oil, ginger or broccoli,’ says Emma. 

    vegetable leaves laid out

    Eat a rainbow  

    However, just because everyday healthy foods often have similar benefits to much-hyped superfoods, it doesn’t mean you should throw your pomegranates in the bin – far from it. 

    Anything that nudges us to make healthy choices, to choose nutrient-packed foods, to expand our diet, isn’t a bad thing. The trick is not to get lured into thinking that one particular food is bona fide health gold and should be eaten exclusively. This is because no one food – super or not – can provide everything the body needs. ‘The truth is, all fruits and vegetables are super and it’s the variety of these that bring us the range of nutrition that our bodies need,’ says Priya. ‘If you only eat a few types of fruit and vegetables, you’ll actually limit the nutrients you’re getting. 

    ‘That’s why, instead of focusing on foods marketed as superfoods, you’re better off focusing on eating as many plant foods as possible. Wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts are all derived from plants and each brings their own unique powerhouse of nutrition, plus benefits to our gut bacteria. If you want a super diet, the trick is to get super-diversifying.’

    So, as convenient as the concept of superfoods may be, remember there are plenty of other choices that are pretty damn super, too – they just don’t like to boast about it on Instagram, that’s all.

    For more inspiration on how what you eat can affect your health, check out our article on the foods that are guaranteed to help you sleep better.

    As a Vitality member, you could get up to 25% cashback on Waitrose & Partners Good Health food when you get active. If you have a second eligible health insurance or life insurance plan, you could get up to 40% cashback. Excludes beverages. Log in to Member Zone for the details.