There was a time when the word “superfood” wasn’t synonymous with “health food.” Acai berries, for example, were unknown outside of Brazil ten years ago, but after the American public discovered them, public sales skyrocketed. These sales have declined in recent years due to the rising popularity of other superfoods.
History is no stranger to supposed miracle foods and substances. Coca-Cola was first marketed as an intellectual beverage, a stimulant that could also relieve headaches. It is no secret nowadays that Coca-Cola once contained cocaine, and advertisements would often touch upon the benefits of the coca plant. Additionally, cigarettes, cottage cheese, grapefruit, and lemonade were all said to help with weight loss throughout the 20th century.
Though the term “superfood” has only been around since the 1970s, marketing has always been a crucial part of the food industry, and because conscientious eating is more in vogue these days, we are seeing this term frequently. Are these superfoods really that super, though?
Superfood Trends of Past and Present
Blueberries were in many ways the first “real” superfood: they are attributed with kickstarting the superfood craze in the late 1990s, purported to have extremely high antioxidant levels and be superior to all other berries. While they’re doubtlessly healthy, strawberries have more vitamin C than blueberries and contain more antioxidants per serving. Blackberries are also highly nutritious. Blueberries have become so popular that Ben and Jerry’s have a blueberry Greek frozen yogurt, and even Pringles has started making blueberry flavored chips.
2. Acai Berries
Many credit Dr. Oz with popularizing these berries, native to Central and South America, in the U.S. in 2008. Celebrity endorsements have only strengthened this popularity. Though they are nutritious, some of the claims made of the berry are not entirely accurate.
The acai berry has been said to contain more antioxidants than any berry one can find at a regular grocery store. After testing, however, results found it to actually be lower in antioxidants than grape, blueberry, and black cherry juices.
3. Goji Berries
In China, goji berries have been used for centuries to treat different health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. These berries, consumed dried, cost $15 – $20 a pound, and while they are packed with antioxidants, so too are many other berries you can find on the market. Goji berries have the highest protein concentration of any other fruit and contain all the essential amino acids, though what they offer can be found in eating a variety of other healthy foods as well.
There is one website that calls goji berries the “hallelujah berry,” and many companies claim their goji berry products will help fight cancer, cure diabetes, and stop glaucoma, though none of these claims have been proven. Goji berries can be an excellent addition to your healthy diet, but don’t expect them to be a miracle cure on their own.
The mid 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in this fruit. Pomegranates were everywhere and its health benefits were being widely proclaimed. Pomegranates have high levels of antioxidants, and do actually contain more polyphenols than cranberries or green tea.
A multi-million dollar market was created with the increased demand in pomegranate, though it is not necessarily reflective of the fruit’s health benefits. Take what LA Times columnist Mike Hilzik had to say about this popular juice brand: he writes, “[I]t has long been clear that the most wonderful thing about POM Wonderful pomegranate juice is the spectacular marketing skill that persuades consumers to fork over their hard-earned cash for a liquid that sells for five to six times the price of, oh, cranberry juice.” The point being, the same benefits could be obtained by spending less.
It’s definitely something to think about the next time you’re staring at a shelf full of juices that claim to have unremarkable superfood powers.
Quinoa is a grain which has only recently increased in popularity, and has quickly become the go-to grain for many around the world. It’s become so popular that the United Nations named 2013 as “The International Year of Quinoa.”
Quinoa is packed full of protein, has been shown to mitigate hypertension, is a supposed anti-aging miracle, and is now rivaling cocaine as Bolivia’s largest export. In the year 2000, the cost of 100kg of quinoa was 80 Bolivianos ($11.60 USD). In just three years, this price rose to 800 Bolivianos ($115 USD). In 2013, the US imported 70 million pounds of quinoa.
Once a grain staple of Bolivians and Peruvians, quinoa is now something eaten by many that had not even heard of this grain a decade ago.
Kale, in many ways, took the place of spinach once the latter’s popularity dropped. While both are extremely good for you, food marketing has perhaps taken these “superfood” benefits too far. While studies have shown that kale can help with certain types of cancer and that it is high in antioxidants, many companies have jumped on this green trend and offer many products that aren’t really that nutritious. Kale chips that can sell for up to $6 for 6oz aren’t really that great for you, and you’re definitely not getting the nutrients of raw, fresh kale. Better tasty alternative is a kale smoothie.
Are Superfoods Here to Stay?
Many food trends have come and gone. “Low-fat” and “low-carb,” which were wildly popular for many years have steadily declined, and the heyday of many of the superfood trends is now nearing its end. In 2011-2012 there was over a 50% decline in fruit products that contained acai, goji berry, and pomegranate.
What we’re seeing now is what we’ve seen for years. As one superfood moves out of the limelight, another moves right in. Coconut oil, fermented foods, sprouted grains, and turmeric are beginning to garner more interest, and it won’t be long before a long list of new superfoods completely replaces the old.