Superfoods have become increasingly popular over recent years – but what are superfoods? Should you be including them in your diet? And are there any downsides to our demand for them?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a superfood as “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being”. However, the first thing to note is that the term ‘superfood' actually has no scientifically agreed meaning.
To quote my friend and fellow nutritionist Ian Marber “a superfood is any food with a marketing department or publicist”. The superfood label is most commonly used to sell food products, and it's easy to be drawn in by the various health benefits associated with them.
Take for example the well known superfood acai – a berry native to the rainforests of South America and star of the Instagram favourite, acai bowls. Claims have been made that they are helpful for a wide variety of health concerns, including arthritis, weight loss, high cholesterol, skin appearance, detoxification and even erectile dysfunction! Whilst they are a good source of beneficial antioxidants and fibre, research on acai berries is limited and many claims about their health benefits are still to be proven.
The health benefits of acai are mostly associated with their high concentration of antioxidants. However, our home grown, organic berries such as strawberries, raspberries and blackberries also provide good levels of antioxidant nutrients, as do many other fruits and vegetables.
Many well know superfoods are from exotic countries: acai berries are native to South America whilst goji berries are native to Asia and pomegranates are cultivated in the Middle East. Their exotic origins might make them sound more special – but sadly there are often consequences to this. Not only does importing foods from thousands of miles away have environmental implications, our demand for these foods has been known to drive the cost up for locals who depend on them.
The exotic origin might add to these food's appeal, but in most cases it doesn't make them any more nutritious than our home grown ‘superfoods' which don't have the same negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts.
There are plenty of amazing, British grown superfoods that don't get so much attention. Vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and cabbage contain high levels of beneficial nutrients. As do fruits such as the wide variety of British berries and our home grown apples.
If you're looking to include more nutrient dense foods in your diet then take a look at the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI). This is a great tool that helps you determine which foods provide the most nutrients for your calories. And guess what? Brussel sprouts have more than double the ANDI score of acai berries!! (However, I can't promise that a bowl of blended Brussels has quite the Insta-appeal of an acai bowl!)
Superfoods are fun and novel and including them in your diet here and there can help to boost your nutrient intake. However, I believe that we should all be aiming to base our meals on local, organic, plant based produce as much as we can. I've yet to find a foreign superfood that doesn't have a pretty good homegrown equivalent!