Do you remember noni juice? No? Let me help you out. Noni, an exotic fruit, was proclaimed a superfood about 15 years ago, and was one of the first foods to receive that label. In 2011 there was coconut water, while in the last year or so chia seeds from Australia have taken over and are still doing well in health food shops.
But what makes a superfood, and who decides what qualifies? Although I’d like to think that there was a group of learned biochemists and nutrition geeks poring over the research before bestowing the title of ‘superfood’, the term is no more than smart marketing. In fact you could define a superfood as ‘any food with a publicist’.
While it’s easy to be dismissive as a result, increasing awareness of what we eat is no bad thing. Marketing isn’t always about getting us to buy pointless crap, it can be used for good too — consider the effects of the ‘five a day’ slogan. Even if we don’t eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, most of us know that the guidance exists. Terming a food a superfood does encourage attention, from food writers and bloggers as well as buyers in supermarkets and, ultimately, consumers too.
PR doesn’t come cheap, and superfoods tend to be pricy. The PR firm has an easier job when the food in question is from somewhere exotic, such as Tahiti in the case of noni juice. Ideally, it would have been favoured by local tribes for many thousands of years to give them energy to prepare them for battle or fight pain. If it has anything to do with fertility or sexual stamina, that’s marketing gold.
When goji berries were first introduced into the UK, the PRs talked them up with references to Amazonian tribes (although I suspect the tribespeople would happily have traded their berries for some paracetamol). But clearly it worked, because goji were a big hit in 2007.These small orangey/red berries contain beta-carotene, vitamin C, zeaxanthin, lutein, essential fats, minerals — it’s a long list — but while they are a good source of these nutrients, they are certainly not a unique source. They taste pleasant enough and if you have a poor diet, then adding a spoonful of these to a bowl of cereal would be helpful. But if you have a decent diet, they aren’t life-changing. (Similarly, blueberries may be rich in phytochemicals, but adding them to a muffin or pancakes won’t compensate for the refined flour and sugars.)
So provenance is a big factor in achieving superfood status. This means that broccoli, for example, does not have quite the same clout, though it is rich in a variety of nutrients including glucosinolates (also found in other cruciferous vegetables), from which isothiocyanates are made, which themselves can reduce inflammation as well as enhance liver detoxification. Broccoli also contains kaempferol, a flavanol that can help mediate allergic responses, as well as fibre, which offers a degree of protection against colon cancer and reduces LDL cholesterol.
Broccoli is reasonably priced too, unlike goji berries — but what it has in nutrients it lacks in not being artisanal, glamorous or hard to find (all of which are desirable properties in a superfood).
Food is unique in one aspect in that buying it is relentlessly repetitive. There is nothing else that we buy that we have to choose so frequently. Not clothing, fuel, books, movies, financial services, not even water — these are things we must purchase sometimes, but we make choices about what we want to eat several times a day. What’s more, supermarkets stock significantly more individual items than any other type of shop and so a food needs to do something to get noticed.
What better way than to claim it has special properties? But there is an unexpected dark side to promoting foods in this way.
Take quinoa, a superfood from the Andes that enjoyed a huge increase in popularity during the 2000s, and has led to a larger percentage of crops from Bolivia and Peru being exported. Whereas the grain was once a staple food for locals, the popularity of quinoa in Europe and the US means that more is being sold abroad. At the same time imported food has become cheaper, and so refined flour imports are increasing to make up the shortfall. Not quite like for like then.
But don’t be taken in by the marketing, as we have many less exotic and more readily available British products that, like broccoli, should be considered for superfood status. Whether it’s rapeseed oil from Suffolk in place of olive oil, strawberries from Hampshire instead of goji, kale from Lincolnshire, apples from Somerset, salmon from Scotland or leeks from Wales — they all qualify. Even if we may not be able to pull that much glamour out of the hat when it comes to marketing, surely local is always super?