September 24, 2020

Superfoods: lies and truths


Açaí, moringa, maca, chlorella, reishi … for many people these names mean absolutely nothing, they could well be surnames of famous people from other cultures. But in reality, this collection of such random words corresponds to the alignment of different “superfoods” that have become popular in recent years.

The use of this word has been much repeated in everyday language especially during the last five years. However, there is no technical definition or requirement for us to be able to coin a specific food in this way; sometimes it is applied because it is more complete than the rest of its group, or because there are more studies on its nutrients.

What all of them do have common characteristics in is the process of how their properties are communicated, attributing to them in all cases characteristics related to their high nutritional interest and relationship with health, leading them to be held very responsible for the prevention or treatment of diseases.

This is the backbone to begin to understand how we refer to them: and therefore we would never call egg yolk a superfood for its ability to make emulsions, or dry rice for enduring years without being non-perishable. The “super” is always related to health.

What are superfoods like? Since we have a food culture, the human being has always kept a bit of mysticism related to novel foods and other cultures, giving them a magical aura and special properties. It happened to us years ago with spices, cocoa, tea or coffee; But when centuries have passed these foods are no longer so novel and have given way to other proposals.

We could say that it is a generational relay in which as the years go by some become more fashionable than others. For example, goji berries or Himalayan salt no longer star as many covers as they did five years ago, and now it is the turn of moringa, açaí or chlorella.

Another common component that we usually find is that they are generally exotic (non-native) and expensive, forcing us to take them occasionally in small quantities and often being marketed many times in herbalists or diet stores, and not so much in the neighborhood market or in the supermarket. These are places where health conscious people go and buy “something for”: “For memory”, “for cholesterol”, “to strengthen defenses”. It is the perfect audience to sell superfoods and charge extra for it.

It is difficult to sell products at 50-100 euros per kilo when you have seen them all your life in your gastronomic culture.

How to digest existing information on ‘superfoods’?

As it is impossible to contemplate all the superfoods that are attributed healthy properties, it is better to consider some questions to keep in mind to be able to identify the properties that a food will really provide us.

–The quantity and frequency: precisely, the fact that they are taken in small quantities, is one of its main limitations. If we think about it, it is really difficult for a single food to have such powerful properties that its consumption alone can be directly related to any kind of specific effect.

This premise explains that, despite studies to assess the contributions of superfoods to health (Van der Driessche, 2018), we did not find consistent effects. And it is that, if we think about it, compared to about two kilos of food and drink that we ingest daily, the effect that two grams of berries can have, representing 0.1% of the intake volume, is more than limited.

It is understandable that a 200-gram salmon fillet will affect our diet much more than a few seeds in a loaf. Or, going to the vulgar, a measly and simple tomato has a greater effect on your diet than taking wheat bran with yogurt.

–Compare and relativize the information: Lack of perspective means that many times we do not correctly identify if a food is “rich in” or has a lot of a nutrient. During the last years, for example, it has been repeated that quinoa has a large amount of protein, and it is completely true if we compare it with cereals, for example, but if we substituted quinoa for chickpeas in a salad, we would be adding even more quantity. of protein. Are chickpeas a superfood?

–Flee from miraculous properties: When curative or preventive properties are attributed to a single food, it is a fairly important alert. Prevention is done with a set of nutritional status, not by carrying a few nutrients. Even the healthiest and most scientifically backed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, greens, nuts, or seeds, are not all day taking their chest out of the claims they could proudly display.

Olive oil, broccoli, carrots, artichokes, blueberries, walnuts, oats, seeds … are much more nutritionally interesting, precisely because they are taken in much more relevant quantities, and are also more accessible to the population.

Eating fruit, in general

In any case, and although public health priorities are more general – that is, what we should do is take more fruit and vegetables (thus, nonspecifically) – we must not forget that not all foods are equally interesting in our context, and it is completely true that some of them have characteristics that may be more beneficial than others.

In this sense, a blueberry does indeed have more interesting compounds than a custard apple or a peach. In the same way, a walnut is more nutritious than a peanut. All this, of course, understood with the observations that we have previously commented.

This is the paradox, which turns out that a salad is not detox, but that if you crush spinach, oranges and celery we have “anti-cancer” and purifying properties. Well no, hey! Under this criterion, we should also have called the Andalusian gazpacho as detox from its origins.

Legislate against exaggeration

The whole world of health claims surrounding these foods is very lax, full of lies and half-truths. As there is no real control over this type of properties, and practically people count what they want from food, it generates a lack of protection for the consumer.

Theoretically, the legislation that already contemplates it should be applied. On advertising and commercial promotion of products, activities or services with the intended sanitary purpose, we have a specific Royal Decree, 1907/1966, in which “any kind of direct or indirect advertising or promotion of products, materials, substances, is prohibited, of intended sanitary purpose in the following cases:

• That are intended for the prevention, treatment or cure of diseases.

• That they suggest specific slimming or anti-obesity properties.

• That they attribute specific and specific preventive, therapeutic or curative properties to certain food products for ordinary consumption ”.

However, we deal daily with all these attributions that roam freely. Also at a European level we have Regulation (EC) 1924/2006, which regulates nutritional and health claims on products. It purportedly contemplates label communication, presentation and advertising, but is far from being effectively applied.

Aside from the fact that we can find “exaggeration” as a common element in advertising, in the specific case of superfoods we should add some observations that should make us be more cautious than normal when communicating their properties.

For one thing, people may misinterpret that those superfoods they are taking make up for a bad diet. You shouldn’t be talking about a food that helps heal something or prevent it, but about a healthy eating pattern. This is due to the fact that the environment surrounding an ingredient itself is always given more importance than the diet as a whole. An example: having a hamburger with a poppy seed bun.

Furthermore, what they do sometimes is distract attention from what is truly important. The main problem in our food context is not precisely due to the absence of superfoods, but due to too much prominence of superfluous foods: the prominence that refined flours, sweets, white bread or sugary soft drinks have in our diet is very high; We also consume a significant amount of sausages and alcoholic beverages, all of them products with a very low nutritional value and related to the appearance of non-communicable diseases.

To improve our diet we do not need superfoods. What we need is to eat healthy.

Give the diet the importance it deserves.

In this sense, what we must do is give the importance it deserves to the global diet, to the daily eating pattern, and not only to the sporadic that has a lot of image behind it.

It will have more impact that you take vegetables every day in your main meals, fruit for dessert and always drink water with each meal.

Yes, we know that it does not sound “exotic”, but it is that public health is not there to sell promises that cannot be kept.

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