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Superfoods: not so super after all?

Superfoods is a buzzword now part of mainstream food and health language, often touted as miracle foods that cure all ills, stave off ageing and disease, or aid weight loss. In practice, superfoods are…

The term superfood is often evoked for exotic and ancient fruits, such as these acai berries. Seema Krishnakumar

Superfoods is a buzzword now part of mainstream food and health language, often touted as miracle foods that cure all ills, stave off ageing and disease, or aid weight loss.

In practice, superfoods are more readily evoked when it comes to exotic and ancient fruits. Goji berry and acai berry, for example, or pomegranate and mangosteen are all famously regarded as being super. Liver is actually more dense in nutrients than any of these foods, but have you ever heard it called a superfood?

As you may have guessed by now, superfood is not a scientifically or technically defined term. It’s not a word that medical professionals or researchers really use. Indeed, it has little meaning in the medical research community.

Nonetheless, enter superfood in any internet search engine and it will return millions of hits – mostly from news, magazines, blogs and sales sites. Repeat the search in the US National Library of Medicines online database of biomedical research publications, PubMed, and you get a grand total of three hits along with the helpful suggestion that you may have, in fact, intended to search for “superfund”.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no scientific research into superfoods. Researchers just don’t call them “super”. And there’s a good reason for this: the giant leap from testing foods in the lab to their amazing marketed powers is simply too far to be scientifically or ethically sound.

Just because a component of a superfood may kill cancer cells in a dish in the lab doesn’t mean that eating lots of a food containing this component will prevent you from getting cancer.

What’s more, the assumptions behind superfood science can be problematic. Much of the available evidence comes from cell culture or animal models. While these models are good tools for scientists, they don’t automatically apply to humans.

Humans have considerable environmental and genetic variances that make us much more complicated.

Even when these studies are done in humans, they’re often tested in very high concentrations over short durations that are not reflective of regular balanced diets. There simply aren’t enough long-term, realistic studies to support the claim that superfoods can stave off illness or old age.

It’s easy to see why the concept is popular; being able to consume superfoods that protect you from all kinds of harm are a seductive notion. But the idea may be doing more harm than good. At best, it’s a misleading marketing tool, at worst, it may encourage bad habits.

Superfoods can give people a false sense of security, letting them believe that they can somehow balance out other unhealthy habits.

The prohibitive cost of superfoods is also an issue. The average price of “super” berries such as goji and acai is tens of times higher than humble raspberries, blackberries or apples. But they certainly don’t have ten times the nutritional value.

A common feature of superfoods is that they contain large amounts of antioxidants.

Antioxidants protect cells in the body from free radicals, which are reactive molecules originating from sources such as cigarette smoke, processed foods and normal metabolism. Too many free radicals damage cells, leading to age-related diseases, such as cancers.

Most of the research on the health benefits of dietary antioxidants comes from cell and animal models. This research is, again, not necessarily transferable into the regular dietary context.

The studies that have been done in humans generally show short-term elevations of antioxidants after consuming particular foods in very high concentrations, as you would expect. Avoiding sources of free radicals to start with is probably more beneficial than trying to balance them out with antioxidants.

Nutrients are clearly important for good health but seeking out large doses from any one source is not likely to be beneficial. Simply having more of a particular vitamin or mineral is not necessarily better.

Indeed, too much can sometimes be just as harmful as not enough. Also, the body cannot store certain nutrients so there’s no benefit in consuming large amounts of them; they will only be expelled as waste.

A fixation on superfoods can distract people from the benefits of healthy everyday foods. What most western diets are lacking is not any one super source of nutrients, but variety. Everyday fruits, vegetables and whole foods each have their own unique nutrient profile and contain individual factors that can be said to promote health and wellbeing.

No single food item, or even the top ten superfoods combined, have enough superpowers to replace a balanced, varied and healthy diet. Couple this with avoiding excessive consumption of processed and refined foods and alcohol, and you will have done everything you can, nutritionally speaking, to help you stay healthy and well into old age.

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35 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Super - thanks for clearing that up.

    When you say -

    "Avoiding sources of free radicals to start with is probably more beneficial than trying to balance them out with antioxidants."

    what are the sources?

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    1. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hello Stephen,

      Sources of free radicals include pollution, chemicals, processed foods, alcohol, drugs, cigarette smoke. They also get produced just as part of normal metabolisms.

      I'm not saying the dietary antioxidants don't have a role in balancing out these exposures at all. The dangers come when people think if they use a "good" behaviour they can "cancel out" a bad behaviour. Eg. instead of getting drunk on a friday night and balancing it out with a goij juice on sunday, best to just drink in moderation to start with.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Emma Beckett

      Thanks Emma.....I'm an angel cos I don't smoke or drink.

      And one more question - do oats reduce cholesterol?

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    3. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hi Again Stephen,

      The health claim that β-glucan soluble fiber from oats can reduce cholesterol has been accepted by FDA in the USA and the JCHI in the UK. So I would be comfortable saying yes. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21631511 for a good review from a few years ago.

      But, don't forget to be effective and beneficial even foods with accepted health properties need to still be part of a balanced and healthy diet. No cheating and thinking that just because you had oats for breakfast you can mainline cholesterol for the rest of the day, which is what you worry about when foods get labelled super.

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  2. Terry J Wall
    Terry J Wall is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Still Learning at University of Life

    You say:
    Most of the research on the health benefits of dietary antioxidants comes from cell and animal models. This research is, again, not necessarily transferable into the regular dietary context.

    Have you any independent evidence to back this up? My experience would suggest that this is exactly the evidence that is used to recommend the medical and natural supplements that we see every day.

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    1. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Terry J Wall

      Hi Terry,

      I don't think anyone has actually published a peer reviewed article stating this (otherwise I would have linked to it in the article). But if you go to Pubmed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed) and search any of the individual "superfoods" by their scientific name, studies do infact come up. But as you read through these you will see for yourself that most are in animal or cell models, or the ones that are in humans are only short term measures.

      I'm not saying animal models and…

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  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    'Superfoods' are snake oil. As skeptics have been saying for a century, any one product that promises an array of benefits is probably dodgy.

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  4. Monika Merkes

    Honorary Associate, Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University

    Thank you for this article. I fully agree with your conclusion in the last para.
    I take one 'superfood' that's not mentioned in your article, Amla (Emblica officinalis, Indian gooseberry). After reading my way through the articles I found on PubMed I concluded that there is some evidence that Amla can keep blood glucose levels down. No negative side effects have been reported - although I'd say it tastes awful. I'm currently doing a single subject study to see whether it works for me. The next blood test will tell.
    Amla has also lipid-lowering and antioxidant properties.

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    1. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Monika Merkes

      Hi Monika,

      I'm not terribly familiar with Alma, but looking in the literature just now it seems to me that the story is much the same is for the superfoods I mentions, though interestingly I noticed fans of Alma call it a "wonder" berry rather than a superfood, so maybe even they are steering away from the label.

      Based on the rather cursory look I just had (obviously an hour after work is not really long enough for me to become an expert) the evidence seems to be most ancedotal or from cell…

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    2. Monika Merkes

      Honorary Associate, Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University

      In reply to Emma Beckett

      Hi Emma
      You're right, the studies on Amla are mostly in vitro or on rats/mice. If humans are studied the sample size is small, and there are no long-term studies.
      Amla plays a significant role in ayurvedic medicine, with hundreds of years of anecdotal evidence. There don't seem to be negative side effects. The lack of negative side effects, anecdotal evidence and a few clinical studies reporting benefits, plus the fact that Amla is relatively inexpensive and easily accessible are sufficient for…

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    3. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Monika Merkes

      Cheers Monika, I will have a read. I must admit that I find it easier to stomach (pardon the pun) the idea of Alma as an ayurvedic, rather than a superfood. To me marketing an ayurvedic is kind of seperate and additional to a healthy balanced diet, so I feel this doesn't have the confounding factor of distract from the dietary issues as much. Many foods have bio-active properties and harnessing those components for use as medicines is certainly a valid and interesting propostion (obviously provided the health claims can independently be backed by the scientific data).

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  5. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Does anyone have any references or websites with experiments with double blind testing of any foods? Does Oat bran lower cholesterol, does low folate cause problems for pregnant women, does fluoride when ingested stop tooth decay, do superfoods do any good at all? Only scientific testing on humans is valid.

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    1. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Hi Colin,

      I didn't mean to suggest that double blind trials are the only form of valid scientific evidence. There are certainly foods that are "good" for you and there are certainly food that have bioactive properties.

      I don't think there is much controversy as to the role of folate in preventing birth defects. But it follows on from my article that just because folate has benefits it does not mean it has no negatives and it does not mean more always equals better. For a good review on this…

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    2. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Emma Beckett

      Hi Emma
      Thanks for the extra information. My real motive is to get nutrition, where appropriate, as a first try for a doctor when a sick patient presents with a problem. So if it's high cholesterol, try oat bran before pills. Food has few adverse effects unlike drugs.
      I'm disappointed that most medical courses don't include instruction about nutrition with this aim. (My niece is doing medicine). To get accepted into the medical curricula I'm pretty sure scientific tests will be needed.

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    3. Terry J Wall
      Terry J Wall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Still Learning at University of Life

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Well said Colin
      it is hardly appropriate or honest to ignore or especially criticize nutrition only because of a lack of appropriate testing! How many foods and food combinations are there?
      Your niece is likely to be taught that heath through nutrition, is junk science. It would be interesting to get her to keep a record of how many hours of genuine preventative techniques she is taught!

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    4. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Hi Again Colin,

      The hope would be that good nutrition could act as a preventative for life-style linked diseases such as high-cholesterol or dyslipidemia.

      My understanding is that in those already with high-cholesterol, adjusting diet in conjunction with medication is often the best course of action. These no point taking your pills to lower your cholesterol if you continue to eat baddly, for example.

      I'm not sure about the contents of the medical curricula, but if I had a doctor who only handed me pills and didn't address the rest of my lifestyle that was contributing to the problem, I'd probably be looking for another doctor.

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    5. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Hi, Colin

      IN general, preventative measures that occur over low periods of time are best addressed by population studies, not by RCTs.

      It is form population data that we know about low folate being associated with neural tube defects in the foetus, and the reduction in tooth decay in populations with fluoridated water.

      To do the same test with oat bran, one would have to find a well-defined population to eat it consistently, and compare with a similar population than did not. If there were a population of diligent oat bran eaters somewhere in the world, one could compare their cholesterol levels with a different population, and try to eliminate other variables.

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  6. rory robertson

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Hi Emma and Dr Yates,

    Does added sugar qualify as a "superfood"? I ask only because the University of Sydney has self-published a "peer reviewed" paper that documents "an inverse relationship" in Australia between added sugar consumption and obesity. Yes, eat more (added) sugar, and get thinner! Sounds amazing. Could sugar being a "superfood" help to explain this Australian paradox?

    Of course, I am kidding. What do readers make of quality of scholarship involved in the production and defence of the high-profile Australian Paradox paper? www.australianparadox.com

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    1. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to rory robertson

      Hello Rory,

      I won't comment directly on that paper, because it is not really my area of expertise and I am a realtively junior scientist (I've never worked with secondary data before nor have I worked on such a large population scale, so I am not sure on the conventions in the field).

      But what I will say is that the peer-review process on a paper doesn't end when it is accepted for publication, the scientific community makes ongoing judgements on papers and these judgements are reflected…

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    2. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Emma Beckett

      Well said, Emma. I doubt that Mr Robertson will be placated, however - he doesn't understand how the body of scientific evidence works in policy development, and is likely to continue to bombard any comment thread that has anything to do with diet.

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    3. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Emma Beckett

      Thanks for your reply, Emma, and sorry for the delay in my response. I'm just back from 10 days in Far North Queensland. You may be interested to know that remote Aboriginal communities on Cape York Peninsula - as elsewhere - suffer needlessly because of poor diets: not so much the absence of "superfoods" but from the consumption of refined sugar in extraordinarily large - poisonous - doses.

      Readers, outsized rates of sugar consumption are – alongside alcohol and tobacco - a major driver of…

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    4. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Hello, Dr Sue. I see not correcting self-published errors on the scientific record - with the University of Sydney seriously misinforming the public debate on the origins of obesity and diabetes, together the biggest public-health challenge of our times - still is just fine by you. In your assessment, the need for scientific competence and integrity seems to run a long second to the need to steer well clear of observing the obvious: that your alma mater's standards in science are seriously sub-par. http://www.australianparadox.com

      Dr Sue, do you agree with this statement: "There is absolute consensus that sugar in food does not cause diabetes"? Or do you agree with me that such a statement is absolute nonsense? There is absolute consensus yet debate rages all around? http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/diabetes.pdf

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    1. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Joel Hall

      Thanks for the link Joel. I think some over-reaching conclusions were made from early research into anti-oxidants, everyone got a bit excited... now some of those opinions are needing to be tempered a little as people realise the research didn't show everything they hoped it would.

      Antioxidants do play an important role in physiology, metabolism etc. but they are only one factor in a very complex system.

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  7. Brigitte Cox

    Retired Food Technologist

    Note that antioxidants can act as pro-oxidants when there are high concentrations.

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    1. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Brigitte Cox

      Very true for some antioxidants, vitamin C in particular springs to mind. We didn't have a high enough word count to go into that in the original article.

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  8. Tom Hennessy

    Retired

    "Liver is actually more dense in nutrients than any of these foods, but have you ever heard it called a superfood?"

    Meat , causes oxidation which is quenched by eating vegetables and fruits therefore leaving the researchers saying one should eat antioxidant rich foods , fruits and vegetables to offset the damaging oxidation caused by eating meat.
    "Human gastric fluid may be an excellent medium for enhancing the oxidation of lipids and other dietary constituents"

    A simple breakdown of a food…

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    1. Emma Beckett

      Doctoral scholar, Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory & Casual Academic at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Tom Hennessy

      Yes Tom, that is why nutritionists recommend mixed and balanced diets. Nutrient content alone does not make a food great, Many things that are good for you in "normal" concentrations are bad for you if your intake is too high.

      Normal metabolism does create free radical, as mentioned in the article. That does not mean meat does not have a place in a healthy and balanced diet.

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