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What actually are superfoods (and do they work)?

As with so many questions, there is both a long and a short answer to this one. The short answer is, a) superfoods are a bit of a myth, kept alive by certain parts of the food industry and a media who love nothing more than a cancer-killing chocolate headline and b) it’s complicated.

What even is a superfood?

The truth is there is no official definition of a superfood; that it is a term coined by food manufacturers to describe those products which are particularly rich in antioxidants (such as beta-carotene, vitamins A, C and E, flavanoids and selenium), omega-3 fatty acids, and various other vitamins and minerals; and that has been exploited by business and media to such an extent, the EU has banned health claims on packaging unless supported by scientific evidence – which, when you look closely, is surprisingly scarce.

Do superfoods make you healthy?

It goes without saying that eating less fried chicken and more cauliflower will serve you well in the long run. All studies have limitations, but there have been enough of them, of sufficiently quality, over the years for us to safely say a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts and wholegrains helps promote physical and mental health.

The problem comes when we consider a particular food or, worse, a particular chemical inside a particular food, and draw a direct link between that and clear skin/a cure for cancer/sparkling eyes.

“Many of us want to believe that eating a single fruit or vegetable containing a certain antioxidant will zap a diseased cell. The problem is that most research on superfoods tests chemicals and extracts in concentrations not found in the food in its natural state,” says the NHS on its website. What’s more, even the evidence on antioxidants themselves is inconclusive.

“In a review of the scientific evidence in 2011, the European Food Safety Authority found no evidence that the antioxidant action on free radicals observed in the lab was of any benefit to human health.”

The NHS uses the example of garlic: a ‘superfood’ alleged to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. Upon closer inspection, the British Dietetic Association found this claim would only stack up only if you ate a socially-suicidal 28 cloves a day.

Wheatgrass met a similar fate: claims that a 30ml shot of wheatgrass contains as many nutrients as a kilo of vegetables were skewered by tests showing that, pound for pound, the nutrient content of wheatgrass juice is roughly equivalent to that of (infinitely cheaper and more palatable) broccoli.

Why are superfoods so expensive?

Of course, it’s no coincidence that the more super a food, the more expensive it is. How else would the manufacturers of goji berry juice convince you to drop a fiver per carton?

Concerns for the wellbeing of us, the great unwashed, are all well and good, but one can’t help but feel they are capitalising on the public’s increasing anxiety about health. To combat this (and to enlighten confused customers like us) the NHS and the Guardian have run a series of articles studying superfoods, and the miraculous qualities which have been attributed to them. In it’s ‘Good for you’ series, the Guardian also looks at some more humble foods, like oats, oranges and leeks. Not only are they cheaper, the health benefits of these foods are far more substantiated than those for wheatgrass juice or spirulina because they have been consumed far more widely for a far longer time.

The NHS fears that by concentrating on superfoods rather than a healthy diet, we’ll assume we can ‘cancel out’ last night’s KFC with an acacia berry. The brutal, delicious, exciting reality is that eating a mix of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, meat and wholegrains is the most tried and tested route to health. Not for nothing is variety described as the spice of life.

Nutrition is a complex business, as any dietician worth their salt will tell you, and any juice, packet or newspaper article that claims otherwise should be treated with caution. For my own part, I prefer to stick to food writer Michael Pollan’s famous credo: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

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