Don't Say Superfood
In 2013, I got a call from the owner of a company that created powders of on-trend “superfood” dust and sold them at sticker-shock prices. I’ll admit it wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I started a business to consult with health food companies, but I thought there might be something to refining superfoods to add huge hits of nutrients to the diet. Since then, products sold as superfoods have become ubiquitous — even excessive.
Last month, North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un proclaimed dog meat the next big superfood. It is almost as revolting as the superfood article I read about cockroach milk or recent reports of scientists creating vegetable oil alternatives out of mealworms. But it’s not just the absurdity of a few weird products. Superfood marketing and hype actually promotes unhealthy eating habits, especially when normal, healthy, whole foods are refined into unnatural concentrations.
The stomach isn’t an epic battle between good and evil. A shot of wheat grass won’t undo that the harm of a can of soda but superfood marketing encourages us to believe they can help. Adding insult to injury, sometimes these superfood products are nearly as bad as the soda itself. Navitas Naturals bills itself as “The Superfood Company” and it markets a pomegranate powder, $14.99 for eight precious ounces of pretty pink sweetness. When food factories freeze-dry or concentrate fruit juice that is basically added sugar that they don’t have to call added sugar on an ingredient label. Navitas Naturals Pomegranate Powder has no fiber but is 93% carbohydrate, basically refined added sugar to a human body with a fruit flavor and some vitamins and fruit molecules that may or may not be available to the body in that form or healthy in this concentration. Meanwhile, Navitas Naturals explicitly encourages customers to add this “superfood” (really added sugar) to the diet in daily staples like smoothies, yogurt, dressings, even tea. The one thing all nutritionists agree on is added sugar to the diet is harmful. Anyone would be much better off taking that 15 bucks and buying a basket of real fresh fruit.
But it’s not just the marketing — it’s the cultural hype that promotes using normal foods as superfoods. Take this story in the The New York Times about the superfood lifestyle gone wrong. Believing in the magical healing properties of kale, which has been promoted as “Superfood Number 1”, one woman juiced a few bunches every morning for a tall glass of kale juice. Sound unpalatable? What if I told you the most lasting likely health effect of this woman’s daily superfood dose was apparently hypothyroidism? Now kale is a wonderful whole food. I sauté it for dinner all the time, but marketed as a superfood, well, Eating Well recently quoted a doctor who explained the problem perfectly.
“You’d have to eat a couple of large bunches of kale a day to get enough [thiocyanates] to have an impact [on the thyroid]—and you’d have to eat it raw,” said Jeffrey Garber, M.D., past president of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.” - http://www.eatingwell.com/blogs/health_blog/is_kale_bad_for_my_thyroid_health
Motivated by superfood marketing, that’s exactly what this woman did with a juicer and a commitment to her health. Extra helpings of veggies do the body good, but this superfood fueled quest to concentrate the benefits of whole fruits and vegetables is full of pseudoscience and real health pitfalls.
No one would drink a glass of fresh kale juice every morning without out of-this-world health claims. When one refines a “superfood” they also concentrates all kinds of molecules, some of which could reach toxic levels. A refined “superfood” isn’t the safe food people have been eating for thousands of years, just as a glass of kale juice is not exactly kale. Everyone knows bourbon has more in common with vodka than corn. Fewer understand freeze-dried fruit juice has more in common with table sugar than fresh fruit.
Superfood marketing and buzz stories encourage people to flood their bodies with these refined substances without any safeguards or testing, only guesswork and a quest for profit. And the truth is I get it. I’d love it if a glass of kale juice could save me from the rigors of aging, donuts, and stress. I’d be ecstatic if freeze-dried fruit juice meant added sugar could be a health food. And while it’s true that too much of the Western diet is full of empty calories with no nutritional value, there is no replacement for a healthy lifestyle and varied diet of whole foods. And unfortunately “superfood” marketing and hype doesn’t seem to encourage the healthy eating habits we actually need.
So while there is still a lot of money in marketing superfoods, I won’t take those accounts. It’s just not ethical.