Regular listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Womans‘ Hour will have recently heard nutritionist Suzi Grant extolling the virtues of so-called superfoods. Quackery, I say.
Suzi has been appearing on the show regulalry talking about her ideas on superfoods. This Friday’s edition of Womans‘ Hour (listen here) was not such a clear run for her though. This time, Suzi was joined by a dietitian by the name of Catherine Collins. Now, as you know, dietitians are for real. They train for years, have to be registered in order to call themselves a dietitian. They are accountable for what they say and can be struck off if they behave in inappropriate ways. They work in hospitals. Nutritionists tend to be or do none of these things. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist or nutritional therapist. You are a nutritionist. Tell your Mum – she will be proud. They are accountable to no-one but their own conscience and need no training. What training they do have may be severely lacking in credibility. If you are ill with a condition that needs sounds eating advice, like cystic fibrosis, you would best talk to a dietitian. Taking advice from a nutritionist could well seriously damage your health.
So, Catherine (dietitian) vs. Suzi (nutritional therapist). The show was all very Radio 4, cosy and good natured and rather lacked the impact that it ought to have had. After all, Catherine was there to debunk the superfood nonsense, but the interviewer, Carolyn, rather engineered the conversation to an apparent consensus – which there most definitely was not. So, let us here have a look at the issues.
Let’s start with a definition of superfood… and at the first hurdle we get stuck. There is no accepted definition, and definitely no scientific way of classifying foods into superfoods. Suzi contended that, when faced with the choice of blueberries and lasagne, she ‘knows’ which is a superfood and which is not. (The berries, obviously!) Catherine thought this rather ironic as dietitians do not look at individual foods particularly, but instead try to get people to eat ‘super diets’. And a Southern Mediterranean diet, with its balance of food groups, including lasagne, is very close to what might be considered a ‘super diet’. Of course, Suzi contended that eating loads of lasagne will make you feel woozy and so on. If you stuff yourself silly, answered Catherine. But of course, Italians do not do that. They eat small portions, of many courses, in a varied meal. Moderation, variation and balance. Simple stuff for a super diet. So, the difference so far can be summed up as the dietitian concentrating on the whole diet (holistic, dare I say) and the nutritional therapist fetishising particular trendy foods.
So, is the thing about superfoods just misdirected good intentions? I think it is worse than that, as nutritionists tend to surround their superfood advocacy with wrappings of pseudoscience, mumbo-jumbo and misinformation. This is not good as it confuses people, misinforms then and gets in the way of understanding what makes a good diet. This side of the superfood phenomenon was also on display in the BBC interview.
The first idea that is just plain wrong is that just because certain foods are bursting with a particular vitamin or nutrient then they will be especially healthy for you. The idea is that because Vitamin C stops you getting nasty illnesses, then lots of Vit C must be very, very healthy. The truth is that your body has a requirement for sufficient nutrients in order to work. Sufficient is the key word here. If it has an excess amount of these nutrients, and cannot store them, then they will essentially go to waste. So much food quackery is based around the canard that ‘more good stuff is better’.
Next, there are certain woo-like beliefs that seeds and sprouts are ‘bursting’ with all the ‘energy’ that a plant will need for its life. Utter rot. Plants obtain their energy from photosynthesis and nutrients and water from soil. A seed’s job is to produce a leaf or two and a small root so that it can start extracting the stuff from the environment that it will need to grow. In that sense, a seed is no more special than any other plant matter. Lucky seeds do not contain all that energy the nutriquacks talk about. Imagine the energy in an acorn required to make an oak tree. One wrong tap and it would go off like a nuclear bomb. Dangerous walking in Autumn.
I can almost hear Suzi typing an angry email to me saying that all her pronouncements are backed up by scientific studies. To that, I would say that Ben Goldacre has done a fantastic demolition job on the quality of superfood research. In this Saturday’s Guardian he wrote about finally getting hold of ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith’s PhD ‘thesis’, probably better described as a PhD pamphlet and recipe book. It has long been expected that its academic quality may be questionable as her PhD was awarded by a non-accredited US correspondence college cum vitamin supplement shop. Best read Ben’s analysis of the thesis for all the gory details.
I said earlier that concentrating on superfoods could well have the capability to actually harm people. I think this comes about as heeding advice about taking superfoods misses the big picture. And the big picture is to simply eat a balanced, varied and modest diet. Superfoods give the impression that ordinary, affordable and everyday foods are somehow deficient. Rather than spend five pounds on wooberries and mumbo-jumbo bean sprouts in Waitrose, a family would be better off buying regular and larger quantities of fresh fruit and veg from their local market. On a restricted budget, it is even more important to ignore dubious, expensive products in the belief you can take shortcuts to a good diet. Rather than buying imported African blue-green energy-algae, with all the CO2 emissions associated with travel, eating a cheap British apple would be better for the environment too.