Down with superfoods! Dowdy foods can be just as super

Diet & Fitness

29th January 2016

Superfood, a term that has no legal or official meaning, is used to describe a food that is especially rich in nutrients. Supposedly. To my mind, the correct definition of the term superfood is ‘any food with a marketing department or publicist’, as anyone with something to sell can (and does) label any food accordingly to get attention. And it works.

I suppose it doesn’t really cause any harm as the foods are nearly always healthy and so bringing them to the fore isn’t a bad thing. What does bother me is that superfoods, such as they are, tend to be from somewhere far away, pricey and only stocked in fashionable shops mostly in west London. In some circles this adds to the food’s desirability, especially as bestowing said food with magical health properties helps make it more visible and thus shifts stock. Even better if the chosen food has ‘been used by [insert name of local well-known indigenous people] for thousands of years to prepare them for battle/enhance fertility/ward off illness [delete as applicable]’. If Gwyneth uses it, or might, then all the better.

Comparing the nutrients one gets for the money one spends is a tedious process (perhaps in time the supermarkets might work that out for us just as they do with the price per 100g on the shelf label). If you are in the market for foods that are loaded with nutrients but don’t feel like having to sell your great-grandmother’s engagement ring to pay for them, then there are plenty of familiar foods to choose from, all of them quite super in their own way.

You may be familiar with chia seeds, which retail at £13.31 a kilo at Waitrose while sesame seeds are £9.90. I am not picking on them, although it may seem like it — just using them as an example of how some things aren’t always what they are cracked up to be. Comparing the nutritional profiles of chia to sesame seeds, the former have similar amounts of protein and fibre but the sesame seeds have a third more calcium and eight times more monounsaturated fat (similar to that found in avocado). The chia seeds contain a significant amount of omega 3 (17g per 100g) which is usually the basis of the chia’s superfood claim (sesame seeds offer only a measly 376mg). Yet the chia seed contains alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega 3 found in some plants that needs to be converted by the human body into forms we can use and the fact is we are inefficient at doing so. Therefore, if one is buying chia seeds — having been influenced by their superfood status, which in no small way is linked to the vast amounts of omega 3 they contain — then you may not be getting all you hoped for.

Let’s look at another superfood: beetroot. Much feared by schoolchildren, the beetroot has always been a mainstay of the health conscious. Research shows that beetroot juice can help reduce blood pressure by dilating blood vessels as it contains nitrates that convert into nitrite on contact with saliva, eventually becoming nitric oxide in the blood. However, other vegetables have the same properties, including lettuce, green beans, celery, cabbage and radish. But why do we never hear about cabbage or radish juice reducing blood pressure? Could it be because they haven’t been bestowed with superfood status? Perhaps we should start a campaign…

  • SmilingElephant

    Actually, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut (raw, unpasteurised) and kimchi are becoming increasingly popular. They are low priced too.

  • Brilliant! I’ve been looking forward to reading your ‘superfoods’ article since our day of judging. A great piece of writing and I found myself nodding all the way through. Bring on the dandelion salad and nettle pesto and soup this spring. Both super and free! OH and you get a mention in my latest blog… Why I put on a stone at the FreeFrom Food Awards Judging