Quack Word #39: ‘Superfood’

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.

But what on earth can be wrong with a superfood? Surely eating foods rich in nutrients has nothing to do with quackery, but is just common sense? I don’t think it is quite that simple, and I would contend that anyone using the word ‘superfood‘ is a quack and deserves to score Canards on the Quackometer. Using the term ‘superfood‘ is at best meaningless and at worst harmful. Let me explain.

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.

One last canard on display was that the colour of foods is very important. Superfoods are often brightly coloured. Somehow a food’s nutritional value can be judged by its colour. Now, to be fair, getting people to eat a variety of different coloured foods may help in promoting variety and the use of fresh products – but that is it. Colour is not a flag for nutritional value, but might just liven up a damp salad.

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.

So what’s left for superfoods? Little really. Like most alternative medicine quackometer words, it is a word without substance and is just a marketing word, like ‘holisitic‘, ‘organic’, or Gillian McKeith’s use of the term, ‘Doctor’. The word sells expensive berries in Waitrose, bottles of weird algae extract on nutriquacks‘ web sites, and unimaginative and lazy recipe books. Oh, and it fills slots on the radio with nonsense.

On this theme…

8 Comments on Quack Word #39: ‘Superfood’

  1. Really enjoyed your blog on this issue. I heard the discussion on Weekend Woman’s Hour and was horrified at how much rubbish the so-called ‘nutritionalist’ was allowed to get away with. I agree that finally the presenter tried to give a false impression of concensus. This was very dangerous and helped no one without enough scientific knowledge to realise almost everything the ‘Suzi woman’ said was utter drivel. She should try her ‘live superfoods” in acid at pH 1 or 2 and see what the stomach does to them during digestion.

  2. Wow, just found your blog and amazingly useful Quackometer – I even managed to get a No 1 on the Quackiest pages. 🙂

    today’s quackiest pages…

    * 1. About Us…
    http://www.reverse-therapy.co
    view page analyse (10 Canards)

    Thank you! 🙂 I will be using the Quackometer a lot I suspect.

  3. Well done son! My relationship with my biological father has just taken a nosedive off the edge of the planet due to his love of all things that rate high on your Quackometer. I’m actually relieved, I no longer am subject to hours of drivel about the benefit of “superfoods”, how if I just zapped myself I could get rid of the parasites/flukes/worms??? (who knows) which are the underlying cause of my MS. Ah, thanks but no thanks, I think I’ll rely on my neurologist who has studied medicine for about a hundred years. I think my brain and spinal cord are better off in her hands. The latest on my sperm donor’s list of “medical devices” – the good old aqua detox. This one’s great! I’ve studied electronic engineering and “It’s as simple as electrolysis people”. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE NUTBAGS???

  4. Superfoods contain bioactive substances (not necessarily classic nutrients) which can modulate DNA damage and repair (one-step, base-excision, nucleotide excision, recombination)and modulate the epigenome (histone modification). Way beyond simple ORAC capacity. But many dietary chemicals remain to be identified and its far too early to be giving advice much beyond variety in colours of whole foods. But exciting times ahead…don’t belittle superfoods too soon. So EAT FOOD, NOT TOO MUCH, MOSTLY PLANTS

  5. Ah, Anonymous gain…

    Lots of long words, but it is quite simple. When there is good evidence for the existence f a superfood, inwhatever form that may take, I will be chiming the church bells, but until then…

  6. If you don’t like them, don’t eat them. There is marketing hype around the word, always will be, but there is massive dietary hype around the “well balanced diet”. Don’t act as if its confined to the superfood loving community.
    At the heart of the raw, superfoods loving community though is a passion for amazing health and happiness.
    If you are a person with a genuine drive towards good health, great, your my friend and ally as I see it. Superfoods play an amzing role in my journey and they make me happy, and they act as a fun way for people to shift towards a healthier lifestyle.

    Stop complaining, see the possitive. You won’t have a deep and meaningful influence on people’s lives if you can’t see the beauty before you see the negative.

    In Superfood Given Health,

    Mason

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