Superfoods: super-good or super-bad?

18 September 2017


These days it seems everyone swears by “superfoods” like goji berries, chia seeds and wheatgrass for all kinds of miraculous health benefits. But are these things really as healthy as all that?

Suddenly, they were everywhere. Superfoods. Exotic fruits with hard-to-pronounce names, from places far away from our damp little country – the farther, the better. For the most part, vegetable-based natural products containing high levels of nutrients, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, fibre and minerals. Because there’s no legal standard for the term “superfood”, anyone can slap it on anything they like. If you’ve got a product, calling it a superfood makes it one. In recent years, this has led to an explosion of fanciful claims, because there’s a lot of money to be earned from the superfood phenomenon.

Sounds like magic
One of the most common superfoods in this country is goji berries. You’ve probably seen the packs of these little red berries, and their price tag may have raised an eyebrow, but you get what you pay for – right? Superfoods like goji berries, bee pollen, hemp seed, cacao beans and wheatgrass supposedly improve our health, fight aging and even prevent illnesses. The underlying argumentation goes something like: because superfoods are so rich in nutrients, they give us all the little things that we are lacking in our average everyday diets of sandwiches and spuds. They take care of the deficiencies that we didn’t even know we had, and make us not only feel great but look great too.

Apples and oranges
While it is a fact that superfoods are actually healthy to eat, the bad news is: none of these magical effects have ever been proven. So no one can say: because I’m eating superfoods, I’m healthier. Earlier this year, the Netherlands Nutrition Centre came out with an urgent warning message for consumers: there’s simply no such thing as superfoods. While they may create the impression that products bearing that label are better than our ordinary fruits and vegetables like apples and oranges, nothing could be further from the truth. All the nutrients that the body needs can be gained from a varied diet as the Netherlands Nutrition Centre recommends with its “Wheel of Five”. In short: vegetables, fruit, fish, bread and tea (preferably green).

Placebo effect
Superfoods can be a supplement to a healthy diet, but the effect can backfire if you end up choosing them over certain other products. Moreover, it’s important to remember that the health effects that superfoods claim are completely unsubstantiated by science. Ivan Wolffers, author, doctor and professor of healthcare and culture, summed it up nicely in the documentary Always Something: The Sense and Nonsense of Superfoods: “If people feel better from eating superfoods, we can attribute this to the placebo effect. You’re better off keeping your money in your pocket or spending it on plain old broccoli or cauliflower, because these things are just as healthy as goji berries.”

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