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The myth of super foods

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What do goji berries, acai berries, quinoa and chia seeds have in common?

They’re all part of an expanding list of ingredients called superfoods, and chances are you’ve already heard about how amazing and healthy they are.

What’s a superfood?

The world was introduced to the term 15 years ago when Michael van Straten and Barbara Griggs published the book Superfoods. It became an instant bestseller and since then, the food marketing industry has not looked back. This fad has caught on in Singapore as well, after widespread promotion in the media and readily available products from online suppliers.

But what most have failed to consider is the concept of the pricey and carefully cultivated superfood might be a hugely successful marketing ploy, and that there isn’t actually an agreed definition of a ‘superfood’.

The science of superfood

Technically, there is no science behind superfoods. Most nutrition scientists stay far away from the term. The European Union has banned the use of the word altogether in product packaging unless the claim can be backed up by convincing research, which has yet to materialize. In fact, the supposedly “super” goji berry reportedly contains the same amount of vitamin C as oranges, with research indicating only small increases in antioxidant levels in human subjects.

In reality, conclusive evidence is difficult to obtain in nutritional science. Researchers can only test the effects of a single component of an ingredient in petri dishes or on laboratory rats, and less commonly in human clinical studies.

If not superfoods, then what?

The main gripe nutrition scientists have is the exorbitant prices charged to consumers by virtue of the ingredient being labelled as a superfood, when the nutritional disparity between regular fruit and vegetables and superfoods is negligent. At times, regular ingredients could end up providing more vitamins and antioxidants than an equivalent amount of superfood.

The fundamentals of a healthy diet have not changed. Eating a wide variety of fresh, unprocessed foods, rather than focusing on "superfoods" for specific nutrients, is the mainstay of improving the overall quality of nutrition and health.

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