There’s No Such Thing as a Superfood
Experts are increasingly calling out “superfoods” like kale, almonds, and blueberries for what they really are—something between wishful thinking and really effective marketing.
Welcome to Wellness Lies, our list of the most pervasive misfires in the effort to feel and look better. We asked the experts and consulted the best science on all the questions you have about each of these wellness fads. Read the whole list and share with your most misinformed friends and family members.
Despite what many books and websites will tell you, there is no such thing as a “superfood.” Great foods, sure. But super? The “it” thing that will cut your risk of cancer, prevent Alzheimer’s, help you lose weight, make you generally healthier, and help you live longer? Nope. Sorry, raspberries, almonds, avocados, quinoa, and salmon: We love you, but you're not going to make us immortal.
Experts and researchers are increasingly calling out “superfoods” for what they really are—something between wishful thinking and really effective marketing. For example, in the aptly named paper “Reality check: no such thing as a miracle food,” published in Nutrition and Cancer, researchers pretty much hit it on the head, writing, “Stories of ‘miracle foods’ sell magazines and advertising space; food industries often sponsor research to show that their foods or products are superior, and supplement industries look to boost sales.”
According to Mintel research, 2015 saw a 36 percent increase in the number of foods and beverages launched globally with the labels “superfood,” “superfruit,” or “supergrain”—and the United States lead the pack of “super” launches. And people are willing to pay substantially more for them, per one Nielsen survey of 30,000 global shoppers.
The price gap partly explains why, according to 2017 research in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, “superfood” consumption is highest among those with more disposable income. But the study also suggests that the connection between socioeconomic position and the consumption of so-called superfoods is at least partially driven by a process of social distinction—namely, people opt to eat them because of the perception that that’s what high-class people do.
Behind the science of “superfoods”
Most of the time, the 17 health claims crammed onto the label of your plant-based protein bar and cold-pressed juice are based on research. It’s just that the research, its findings, and its implications for your health are often completely blown out of proportion.
“If you look at the actual studies that have been done on ‘superfoods,’ sometimes [the conclusions drawn from them are] excessive to the point that [they’re] not realistic,” says Colorado-based registered dietitian Jessica Crandall Snyder.
For example, after one study on nut consumption among roughly 120,000 men and women was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, everyone got excited that eating nuts could cut your risk of death by 20 percent (!!!). But what the study actually found was that people who ate nuts at least seven times per week happened to be 20 percent less likely to die from any cause (including cancer and heart disease) during the study’s roughly 30-year follow-up period compared to those who ate zero nuts per week during that time frame. The study didn’t prove that the nuts were the reason—it couldn’t do that because people weren’t randomly assigned to eat nuts or not eat them; the study was based on data from two previous long-term studies. Nuts could well be standing in as a proxy for something else driving the effect (for instance, maybe people who eat lots of nuts also exercise regularly).
“I always recommend going back to the original study,” Crandall Snyder says. “Was it in animals or humans? Did it use extracts or whole foods? What was the dosage and frequency? Did the study show correlation or causation?” Looking at those important details can put things into perspective before you buy up your supermarket’s entire stock of beet noodles. That said, even if you are able to decipher study abstracts, a lot of times, news stories don't even link to the study they're covering, so just finding the research summarized in breathless headlines can be a challenge. And forget trying to find the studies backing up the claims on packaged foods.
“Drawing conclusions based on one or a few studies of the same design ignores the importance of limitations inherent in each study design,” explains Maki Inoue-Choi, staff scientist with the National Cancer Institute’s Nutritional Epidemiology Branch and lead author of the “Reality Check” paper. She notes that the majority of nutrition studies conducted in humans are meant to establish links between habits and health outcomes, not to pinpoint that if you do X, then Y happens. (After all, accomplishing the latter would require enormous groups of people living out their lives in labs.)
“It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect study design in any area of science,” explains Kim Robien, director of the Public Health Nutrition program at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “The key issue for getting at the ‘truth’ in science is how reproducible and consistent are the research findings across different study designs and populations. No single study should ever be viewed on its own—studies should only be considered in the context of the full body of research addressing the scientific question.”
That big-picture analysis is a job that goes to guideline committees, such as the World Cancer Research Institute, Inoue-Choi explains. “They look for reproducible results—findings that are replicated across different populations and that hold up in meta-analyses of multiple studies,” she says. And such research groups are far more interested in people’s overall diet compared to, say, how often they eat avocados.
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Your overall diet matters more than any one food
“We know that long-term dietary patterns, rather than any single food choice or eating occasion, is what matters for overall health,” Robien adds. Far more relevant to health outcomes is people’s intake of all fruits and vegetables, meat and animal protein, whole grains, and processed foods, she says. FYI, major groups like the World Health Organization recommend plant-based diets with generous whole grains, moderate animal protein, and minimal processed foods.
Robien explains that each individual food (and alleged “superfood,” for that matter), contains unique combinations and quantities of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. “Foods are complex mixtures of thousands of chemical compounds, most of which we still have yet to identify,” she says. “It is likely that these compounds play important roles in our overall health, and probably work together to achieve those health outcomes. Thus, it’s always better to eat a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables. Diets that focus too heavily on any one food item are more likely to be deficient in key nutrients.”
Crandall Snyder partly blames the concept of “superfoods” for destroying the banana’s reputation among health nuts. Many people start and stop their fruit intake with berries, the most popular of “superfruits,” dismissing fruits like bananas since they don’t have as many antioxidants, she says. (And, no, bananas aren’t fattening because they’re high in carbs.) Meanwhile, bananas are a good source of potassium and the average American only gets about half of their recommended potassium.
We don’t eat foods in isolation, and we shouldn’t grade their health merits like we do, Inoue-Choi says. She explains that when different nutrients are consumed together, they can either work with or against one another. For example, research suggests that the body may absorb iron more effectively when vitamin C is also present in a given meal—and less effectively when calcium is present.
Remember that your diet is only one factor in your health
Inoue-Choi and her co-authors specifically called out Dr. Mehmet Oz’s TV show in their burn-tastic paper: “While perhaps not as ‘sexy’ as Dr. Oz would like, the public needs more information about the effects of diet as a whole on cancer risk, as well as the importance of achieving and maintaining an ideal body weight, regular physical activity, and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle.”
Point being, we shouldn’t focus solely on our diet when the rest of our lifestyles are out of control. If you want to be healthier, lose weight, or cut your risk of whatever disease scares the hell out of you, don't just look to your diet—and definitely don’t pin your hopes on one single food.
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