It seems to me that not a day goes by when I don’t see some information about ‘superfoods’, whether it is in my Facebook news stream or in a magazine. Recipes for concoctions that will cure a list of afflictions longer than my arm assail me from every angle and, while I’m in favour of healthy eating, I can’t help but wonder whether this craze for ‘superfoods’ is something that we should take with a pinch of salt. After all, most Britons have been eating beetroot for decades, so why elevate it to edible lifesaver this year?
More fiction than fact?
Before I tell you what is trending in the world of superfoods, let’s take a look at what NHS Choices has to say about the health claims for the most popular produce in the category. As it points out, the term ‘superfoods’ is a “so-called” term because there is no actual definition. The EU banned food producers from making health claims on packaging unless these could be supported by scientific evidence. So, the food industry looked for a way around this. According to the view of NHS Choices, the producers funded academic research into the health benefits of their products and it states: “the superfood trend exploits the fact that healthy lifestyle choices, including diet, can reduce our risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.” It also notes that most of the research was done using concentrated extracts from the food products that are not available in the foods in their natural state. In other words, you would need to eat 28 cloves of garlic a day to reap the health benefits claimed for it.
NHS Choices supports eating a balanced diet that contains a range of food products and that includes the superfoods. However, it is noticeable that articles are starting to appear that warn us against over-indulging in superfoods. Excessive kale consumption has already been targeted, but there’s another tastier food that is now coming under fire; it’s the avocado.
The endless years of the avocado
The superfood fashion has worked its way through cabbage, cauliflower and kale, but the one food that just keeps popping up everywhere still is the avocado. According to Jacqui Gibbons at High50, one of the reasons that avocado is so strongly touted as a superfood has nothing to do with its health benefits, but more to with the fact that it looks prettier on Instagram than kale does. She says: “There are more than three million photos of avocado on Instagram, well above kale’s 1.7m.” I kid you not! It’s almost a case of avocados versus Kim Kardashian on social media.
But avocado is also trendy because it is easy to use. It blends easily, you can throw it in a salad without effort and, get this, you can make toast with it. As Jacqui Gibbons says: “For a moment last year it was London’s coolest (and most middle class) breakfast.” OK, it might be better for you than sugar-coated cereal, but would you pay £7 for it?
Over the last four years UK avocado sales have increased by 25% and producer countries, which have invested heavily in marketing their avocados, claim that sales to the UK and EU will double by 2020. However, there are a few downsides to consider: avocados require huge amounts of water to grow and communities in the producer countries are often left without a water supply because the big growers use it all; demand is outstripping supply, so the price is going up and finally, they increase our carbon footprint because the majority have to be flown in from South Africa, Kenya, Peru and Chile. Local, seasonal produce is the way to go if you want to stay healthy and help the environment.
Other superfoods of 2016
What else is trending in superfoods? Surprisingly, black pudding is very ‘du jour’ because of its iron content. Kelp, for its high calcium content, preferably consumed in its raw form, although powder is available for adding to smoothies.
There are new alternatives to quinoa, including freekeh and teff, which are new ones to me, but they are ancient grains from Arab and Ethiopian cuisine. You should replace your normal flour with sweet potato flour, make plenty of bone broth, stock up on maqui berries and kimchi, and when you need to drink something, birch water is recommended. This is “a traditional beverage harvested by hand in the northern hemisphere.” I think we can guess it has a rather high price tag given the “harvested by hand.”
Undoubtedly all these food have health benefits, but none of them is a magic bullet. As Alison Hornby, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association says: “All unprocessed food from the major food groups could be considered ‘super’ and are useful as part of a balanced diet.” I’ll buy that, and locally grown cauliflower. Apparently cauliflower rice is the next big thing!