Superfoods Are A Con

Image: iStock

So-called superfoods receive lots of coverage, but their health benefits are often overstated. Deakin University academic Michael Vagg explains why.

Over a recent weekend the morning magazine shows I have on during lazy mornings had two glamorous nutritionist types breathlessly discussing the latest 'superfoods' that would be big in 2014.

It's difficult to think of a job description which triggers queasiness in me faster than 'nutritionist'. The title is not a protected term, meaning it can be used without any specific qualifications. Sadly, many who use the job title are poorly trained and seem to feel no particular responsibility to make statements that correspond even roughly with reality. For every Dr Rosemary Stanton there are dozens of less scientifically literate and community minded colleagues.

Nutritionists vs Dietitians

The misleading and fatuous nature of the information provided by some nutritionists in the mass media has been highlighted in scientific circles for a long time, most famously and effectively by Dr Ben Goldacre in the UK. He went as far as obtaining certification from the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (AANC) for his dead cat Henrietta, giving 'poor Hettie' posthumous professional recognition as a colleague of many UK media nutritionists.

Celebrities and 'influencers' are known for spruiking the health benefits of superfoods.

The most serious profession which follows the science of food and nutrition is dietetics. Dietitians are part of science-based healthcare and have a comprehensive professional structure which ensures their opinions are likely to be reputable. The title Accredited Practising Dietition (APD) is a legally protected one, and a fair guarantee of scientifically reasonable advice.This is most likely why dietitians are the only nutrition professionals recognised by Medicare and other funding bodies. It's probably also why you don't see many of them making sales pitches on commercial TV for their latest eating plan or superfood.

In any case, both of the youthful and bubbly nutritionists were asked to present their opinions for the viewers regarding 'superfoods'. Rather than looking sheepish and admitting that there is really very little to the idea of superfoods, they launched into a stream of inane pseudoscientific factoids in rapturous praise of exotica like quinoa, goji berries and green tea. My eye-rolling became audible when one of the talking heads blithely answered a direct question about the lack of scientific credibility for superfoods invoking 'ancient wisdom' and the whole paleofantasy meme.

Superfad fallout

Miracle foods and dietary crazes have been around for hundreds of years, but our susceptibility as a species to their blowsy charms seems undiminished. We always want a short cut when deep down we know there is hard work to be done. We always want to feel like we know more than the next guy or to be in on a secret.

Quinoa is a good example. It is almost unique among grain and seed crops for having the full complement of essential amino acids. It makes a lot of sense to use it as a staple cereal in subsistence farming. In fact the Peruvian government has a quinoa program as a public health measure to avoid malnourishment in poor communities. It also makes sense for astronauts to eat it, as it is light to carry and full of nutrients.

The average consumer in a developed country has no particular need to eat quinoa as it is virtually impossible to become protein-deficient with even an unhealthy diet. It's good for those who are gluten-intolerant to have a palatable choice to add to their diet, but it certainly doesn't make ethical sense for healthy consumers in affluent countries to poach the staple crops from those who actually need them in dewy-eyed pursuit of a utopian state of health.

The food fads of the developed world are not without consequences for the environment, either. Quinoa is sourced mainly from Peru, where soaring export prices have created difficulty for locals who now are having problems affording their staple food, and are using their newfound income to become more like their Coke and fries-loving North American neighbours.

Goji berries: "not of any particular medical value". [Image: iStock]

Huge swathes of farmland in China are being turned over to production of Goji berries though they are not of any particular medical value. Hype over the as-yet-unsupported claims of ginseng to improve memory and 'energy levels' has landed both Asian and American ginseng on the WWF priority list of endangered species.

Producers of chia, an unexciting Latin American crop that happens to have high levels of antioxidants have struggled to cope with the rapid increase in demand for their crop, and are planning to expand production at the expense of other crops.

When chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa are no longer the superfoods du jour, these companies will presumably wind down and the farmers will be left to contemplate the wisdom of basing their long term economic hopes on the vagaries of dietary crazes in rich, distant countries. The hucksters who promote superfoods will have made their money and moved on to some other weight loss or health-promoting scheme.

Balancing your diet

To be fair, conservationists may be able to take advantage of uninformed wingnuttery to help save some of the Amazon rainforest, so it may not be all bad. Stable, sustainable production of quinoa may help with food security in the developing world but this is a long way from happening, and is not thanks to promotion in the developed world by health food enthusiasts.

I'm not suggesting that variety and healthy choices are not important. I'm also not suggesting that we as a community should continue with the eating patterns that have us contending for the title of World's Most Obese Country..

I am suggesting that valuable media airtime should be spent educating people how to prepare and plan a varied, balanced diet. Claims for biological effects of individual foods should be based on credible sources not promoted beyond the evidence. Conflicts of interest should be disclosed if the food is being promoted in the media. The core messages about healthy eating should not be lost in the dense fog of hemi-facts emitted by the engines of the health food industry.

I'm all for selling cookbooks to make it easy and fun to prepare healthy meals, but can we drop the pretence that there are short cuts to be taken with miracle foods?

Michael Vagg is Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine and Pain Specialist at Barwon Health. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation.


Comments

    That's an impressive piece of writing. With so much talk about the reputation of media and false news, this article hits the nail on the head several times.

    Most people I ask no longer believe what's written in the newspaper or spoken on TV and have lost faith in web based news sites. That's a sad state of affairs when you think about it. The media then crow about how righteous they are. "It's not us, it's those other nameless media outlets, honest!" Or "all the fake news comes from Facebook!".

    In a way, we are all responsible. The advent of the Internet created a belief that news should be free. By doing so, we whittled down profits of most media outlets and the quality of our media can't help but drop. With the outflux of decent journalists to better paying jobs, the media void is filled with special interest groups and those trying to make a buck by promoting snake oil like Dick Smith Electronics shares.

    Is it possible to make money ethically in media today? I think so, although I openly declare I don't have visibility behind the scenes to truly know. I still believe that being ethical (breaking the media status quo of today) will garner trust and respect and a solid following, but, most probably only for the first media outlet that siezes the opportunity. Until then, we've got what we've got and the snake oil merchants and special interest groups will be the mouthpiece to the masses as more people tune out.

    The irony of having this article on life hacker.

    Are these the same dietitians that are still banging on about eating low fat foods and lots of carbs? The same ones that insist you drink 8 glasses of water a day, and avoid salt all all costs?

    My own personal experience is that many doctors and 'accredited' health practitioners are well behind the science - that they have, in many cases, decades of catching up to do. It takes a long time for the official health practitioners to catch up with the scientific facts and latest research, so that sometimes you have to do the research yourself to find out whether the advice you're getting from your current mainstream practitioners is up-to-date and still valid. This is also true of the standard government health advice and that provided by the health insurance companies.

    Having said this, I realise that it is very hard for them to keep up and learn new things, and to acknowledge that many of the so-called truths they have lived with for a long time are not valid anymore. My doctor openly admits that he has a hard time keeping up. It's like dentists who still claim, wrongly, that amalgam fillings are perfectly safe - when the leakage of mercury poisoning into the body has been proven quite conclusively a long time ago.

    I agree that the superfoods fads are more about eating highly nutritious uncontaminated natural foods rather than universal panaceas for all ills.

    Last edited 02/02/17 6:34 pm

Join the discussion!