The new food fad that is trending these days is superfoods. Superfoods websites want you to believe that eating some foods can slow ageing, make you look younger, boost your libido, cure depression, increase intelligence, prevent cancer and prolong life.
Superfood enthusiasts are encouraged by a plethora of websites and blogs publishing statements like “Superfoods are the next step in optimizing your body’s ability to function by supplying a megadose of nutrients”. I wonder if there are others who find such statement to be a megadose of nonsense or has the media hype led to the disappearance of the voice of reason.
Recently, a friend, who happens to be a senior VP in an advertising firm created the media campaigns for a known superfoods company. As perks, he got free gift hampers of their products which he tried. Cutting the story short, now he cant stop talking about his superfood diet and how healthy he feels.
Being a biochemist, I can factually discuss the merits and demerits of a food ingredient, but how can someone address the “feel better than before” argument?
It got me wondering whether I was being unreasonably harsh and sceptical or there truly was a merit to Superfoods. I decided that this was as good a time as any to educate myself and form a balanced opinion about superfoods.
Are Superfoods a Scam?
To find the answer to this key question, I started where all researchers start – Google. It is quite simple to pull out published papers on the subject. It is important to stick to papers published in reputed journals. It is the fastest and easiest method to cut out the bullshit that you will find on the net.
First of all, a clarification is very important. SUPERFOOD is a term created by the marketers like my friend in the Ad agency, who need to sensationalize and sex up their stories to make them more eye-catching and interesting. To call any food a superfood is wrong as it increases the expectation of consumers to unreasonable levels.
Like the super powered characters of Marvel and DC comics, we expect the foods to deliver Super benefits, in a super fast time. In nutrition that generally does not happen.
Superfoods contain Phytonutrients
Most Superfoods are parts of plants, generally fruits, nuts, berries, leaves, tubers or roots that have an unusually high concentration of a particular biochemical or natural extract, also known as phytonutrients. Since plants are a known source of medicine, it is but natural that some positive health benefits will be observed on consumption of such highly concentrated sources of biochemicals.
A quick google search of the keyword ‘Superfood’ will lead you to different sites that list their own list of Top-10, Top-25 or Top-50 Superfoods. It is clear that there are no set benchmarks for a food to qualify as a Superfood, still, everyone has their own list of Superfoods.
You would wonder why Media, Websites, Nutritionists and at times even Doctors have jumped on this bandwagon. The motivations may be different, but it is a mix of commercial gains to be made and a positive Placebo effect on patients who are recommended something ‘Super’.
So how these superfoods stand when their claims are tested in a proper scientific way?
I have randomly picked 5 superfoods that are found on almost everyone’s superfood list and accessed the latest published data available on them.
Superfoods 1 – Blueberries
Blueberries are a small, blue-purple fruits known for their high antioxidant content. They are reported to be effective at reducing cognitive decline, supporting cardiovascular health, protecting the liver, and reducing liver fat buildup.
Antioxidant: There are good reliable studies available to back the antioxidant claim of Blueberries. The studies though were done in varying doses (75g to up to 200g per day) to get the desired antioxidant effect.
Cognition: Studies on cognition decline were positive with improvements in verbal learning and memory, but the studies have been done with concentrated blueberry extracts and not the actual fruit.
Cardiovascular and Anti-diabetic: Studies with Blueberries is a mixed bag. The studies found a marginal reduction in Blood pressure with a small improvement in insulin sensitivity, but overall cholesterol levels remained unchanged
Superfoods 2 – Green Tea
Green tea is a plant frequently steeped in hot water and drunk as tea. It has been implicated in benefiting almost every organ system in the body. It is supposed to help in weight loss, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, anti-carcinogenic, anti-diabetic, and many more.
Fat Burning: Human trials results are quite mixed and trials that have yielded results have done so at higher end of dose, equivalent to drinking 1.2L of Green tea or more per day. It is but natural to wonder whether the weight loss is due to Green tea burning fat or due to filling of stomach with flavoured water since there evidence to support fat oxidation and increase in metabolism was inconclusive.
Cardio-protective: With enough studies and evidence, it will be safe to say that Green tea is beneficial but to a very small degree at normal consumption rate. No significant changes in insulin levels were observed, so cardioprotective action due to better blood sugar control can be ruled out.
Neuroprotective: Again a mixed bag as some studies show a reduction of blood flow to brain with Green tea, whereas studies show an improvement, but only in individuals who already had low cognition score to start with.
Superfoods 3 – Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is used frequently in cosmetics as a topically-applied moisturizer. It is claimed to increase fat loss, metabolic rate, act as antibacterial, boost memory.
Fat Burning: Coconut oil is made up mostly of triglycerides. Studies suggest replacing calories with coconut oil within daily caloric requirements can result in faster fat loss over time. The danger here is that it is every easy to exceed the daily limit if someone goes just by personal judgement. Coconut oil may also temporarily increase metabolic rate but the effect disappears after initial two weeks when the body acclimatizes to this change.
Memory: Trials with coconut oil in Alzheimer’s patients shows an improvement in cognition function when 20ml coconut oil was consumed twice daily with food.
Antibacterial: Antibacterial action of coconut oil is proven but more suited for superficial oral and skin infections. Even in those cases it may not be a replacements for antibiotics as antibiotics are targeted against specific organisms. Overall use of coconut oil may be beneficial as preventive, but may not be as effective in treatment.
Superfoods 4 – Maca
Maca was traditionally used as an aphrodisiac. Its new claimed benefits include, increase in sperm production, treatment of enlarged prostates, improving bone health and memory.
Aphrodisiac: Human studies show an improvement in Libido in males, especially at higher doses of 3gm. It was found effective especially in patients consuming anti-depressants and who suffered sexual dysfunction due to consumption of medicines.
Sperm Production: 4gm of Maca taken for 4 months seems to increase sperm production in young healthy males even though the mechanism of action is not yet known.
Bone Health: Maca in studies done on mice shows protective effects in maintaining bone density, but similar human trials are not available. In a trial done in post menopausal women, Maca showed an ability to regulate hormones and reduce symptoms of post menopausal discomfort like hot flushes and night sweating.
Superfoods 5 – Cinnamon
A common spice found in most kitchens, which has claimed medicinal benefits such as antioxidant, anti bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic agent.
Antioxidant: In a recent study, Cinnamon supplementation improved antioxidant status in women with PCOS, the results were achieved with cinnamon supplements not the actual spice. This is understandable as consuming 500mg of the raw spice may not be an easy task.
Antibacterial: There is ample evidence of cinnamon oil as an antibacterial agent and is widely used as alternative antibacterial agents in cosmetics, toiletries and disinfectants.
Anti-inflammatory : There are studies available that support the anti-inflammatory claims of cinnamon water extract.
Anti-diabetic: Cinnamon given in doses of upto 2 g daily, for 16 weeks did not have any impact on blood glucose level. Since no significant difference was found between cinnamon and control groups, there is insufficient data to suggest insulin sensitivity.
The listed five superfoods were not the only ones that were studied, but across all superfoods the key take away points remain the same.
Foods are foods!
All natural foods of plant origin contain bio-chemicals or compounds of biological origin that can impart many health benefits to the person eating them. This is how our body sources the raw materials and building blocks required for its own healthy functioning and boosting its immunity.
The so-called superfoods are different from regular foods as they have high concentrations of one or generally a group of bio-chemicals. This gives them some health benefits, but even superfoods do not have high enough concentrations in their natural state to provide therapeutic impact. If they could, they would not be a part of our diet, but rather be reserved as medicinal plants. After all, we do not see men walking around with an erection just because that ate too much Maca or sportspersons being disqualified because the had a hearty breakfast of oysters.
Yes, there are foods that can help you boost immunity, fight infections, enhance libido, protect heart and control sugars and do many more great things, but most studies required abnormally high quantities of food product to get medicinal or therapeutic effects. In lesser quantities, superfoods are just healthy and nutritious food.
If you expect significant health benefits from superfoods, you can buy health supplements containing concentrated extracts of the superfood.
So, the final verdict is, Superfoods may not increase your longevity or automatically improve your health, but adding a healthy dose of superfoods to your regular diet will surely improve your quality of life. For better results, stick to supplements.
CAUTION: While researching this article, I realised that Internet is not a reliable source of information on health and nutrition unless you know where to look. You will find many websites, some with real, factual information, some with speculative information and many with wrong or intentionally misleading interpretation of published studies twisted for personal gains.
I will be following up with a series of articles, exploring individual superfoods, identifying the active bio-compounds responsible for health benefits and sorting thru studies to list the real health benefits and those that have been junked based on factual data.
I welcome suggestion from readers on which superfoods to research.
Written by Dave Keller – Biochemist by profession, part-time blogger, full-time adventurer.
Keywords: Superfoods, superfoods scam, superfoods fake claims, Do superfoods work?, Superfood claims, Superfoods proof, Cinnamon, Maca, Blueberry, Green tea, Coconut Oil, Phytonutrients