WTF are superfoods, anyway?
Superfoods are simply foods that have a higher than average nutrient density, which leaves a wide scope for many different foods. Nowadays the word superfood brings to mind some relatively expensive powders, capsules, purees and juice concentrates.
Sedate brown-green powders and lifeless capsules wouldn’t be very sexy as stand alone items. So these products are cleverly marketed with the usual lethal gamut of “cutting edge” research, heavily photoshopped images of women in bikinis laughing at acai bowls who are conventionally attractive with just the right amount of exotic ethnicity - or male white bodybuilders with fake tans posing as Mayan warriors (hilarious)... and those words that appeal to the health nut in all of us: organic, pure, clean, paleo, concentrated, anti-ageing, antioxidant, and of course free of gluten, sugar, dairy, and all the rest of it.
More nutrient-dense than a speeding bullet blender
What makes these superfoods even more irresistible is the inviting concept of a jam-packed form of nutrition in a minute amount of food, conveniently packaged in some highly concentrated form.
"Get 300% of your RDI of vitamin E or quercitin in just one teaspoon of this stuff!" What time-poor wellness seeker could resist?
Never mind how much of that your body can actually absorb, if it’s in there it’s assumed that it all gets to the cells.
It’s easy, it’s exotic, it’s super-healthy. It appeals to the lazy bugger in every health conscious consumer.
Pick any one superfood found on the shelves of your health food store and you won’t have to look closely to come face to face with beautifully presented charts and other suspiciously simplified research explaining why its ORAC count (a measure of antioxidant capacity) far exceeds that of anything else in the world.
In fact, try to google a non-biased ORAC scale and you’ll have a hard time getting past the boisterous claims of research teams touting their particular superfood, each with a greater concentration of antioxidants or sea minerals than the next, each harder to find than a levitating Himalayan mountain goat or the sweat of a Mayan cave-dwelling enlightened shaman.
The escalating demand for such foods by health-conscious consumers has let loose the tsunami of superfood marketing and health food store bombardment we've seen over the last two decades.
Rarity breeds desire
Like shark fin soup or white rhinocerous horn, rarity breeds desire - only it’s now far sexier for marketers to keep these exotic foods vegan, paleo, and gluten free.
As humans we tend to thirst for the most exotic, the most expensive, the most foreign version of many things, and this is strikingly clear when it comes to some of the more popular superfoods.
Think goji berries from the Tibetan Himalayas; acai sourced from the depths of pristine Amazonian rainforests; chia harvested in South American coastal deserts; maca and quinoa from the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia; coconuts and durian from steamy Southeast Asia; noni fruit from Tahiti; and mesquite from Mexico. That means there's a lot of work and resources involved in getting those superfoods from those Andean mountaintops and high Tibetan plateaux and into your blender.
The rarity of a product adds to its appeal and in addition to the often questionable independently conducted research, rarity fuels the marketing bonfire. Coupled with the health-conscious, time-poor consumer with a disposable income, and a healthist culture full of celebrities who wish to generously share their superfood smoothie tips via YouTube (without at all smacking of privilege - sarcasm intended), and you have enormous scope for marketing pretty much any unheard of food as the next superfood.
Everyday foods can be pretty super
It’s not that I don’t think superfoods exist. There are many wonderful common, every day, cheap (and even free) superfoods that contain very high levels of antioxidants, anti-ageing compounds, anti-cancer phytochemicals, and other wonderfully medicinal goodies if that's what you're going for.
I just don’t agree with the status to which some particular superfoods have been raised, with clever marketing that twists the meaning of the word “superfood” to some god-like status in order to reach a sales figure. Then there's the social justice and environmental issues surrounding the production of many of our favourite exotic superfoods such as quinoa and maca. It all leaves a bad taste in one’s superfood-loaded mouth.
"Superfood x was eaten by Mayan warriors to increase libido and stamina." Or so says the label on the maca powder container accompanied by a very tanned but non-Mayan looking white male bodybuilder.
Sounds pretty appealing, doesn't it. If something was used thousands of years ago for a cool-sounding purpose, then of course it's going to work for you in this day and age, right?
There's this matter of genetic suitability and ancestral practicality of a food. For a native warrior living in the Amazon, in the right season, the response of their body to a root that’s been used by their ancestors for centuries in a ceremonial tea is going to be different to a modern day Indo-European adding a teaspoon of maca powder to their smoothie ten minutes before downing a cappuccino. I’m not saying the maca will be completely useless, just that it may work differently in your body compared to the warrior’s.
You don’t need to refinance your house in order to boost your health. Wherever you are in the world, you can find naturally occurring, seasonal and inexpensive superfoods that pack as much if not more of a nutritional punch as your $60/kg maca powder, can be found in your own backyard or within 200km, and often taste a shit load better.
I’m in southern Thailand at the moment (edit: at least I was in 2012 when this article was first written) and have re-discovered some amazing superfoods. Some of these are often just discarded into the compost or bin and require no extra searching on your part.
Papaya seeds are an extremely effective anti-helminthic and make papaya taste even better when eaten with the flesh. Sour plums such as jujube found in this part of the world are extremely high in antioxidants and are very inexpensive.
Back in Australia, there are many locally grown, comparatively cheaper superfoods with an unusually high nutrient density that you could pop into your morning smoothie instead. Kale, parsley, turmeric, ginger, and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) greens can all be grown in your own backyard easily, and in the case of dandelion, can be found as weeds growing freely along your fenceline!
The leaves and flowers of nasturtiums are antioxidant rich and pretty to boot, as are herbs such as dill and coriander. (Disclaimer: make sure you know what you're doing when you go gathering wild plants for consumption. Take a wild foods course first and read plenty of books. I take no responsibility for Into the Wild-esque disasters!)
If you still wish to gain the health benefits of specific superfoods without remortgaging your house, try spinach over spirulina (both high in antioxidants and iron), eggs over chia seeds (for an Omega-3 hit), seasonal berries over acai (antioxidant central), and pumpkin seeds over maca (both promote reproductive health).
Grounded spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric and mustard contain the highest ORAC count (a measure of total antioxidant capacity) of any foodstuff you can get, far exceeding noni juice or acai berries.
Other superfoods that I’m lucky to have access to here in Southeast Queensland are locally grown avocados, purslane (Portulaca oleracea, an edible weed exceptionally high in ALA Omega-3, vitamins and minerals), and locally caught fish.
It’s not like I’m going to do a rant and dance if someone lovingly makes me a chocolate goodie ball with some maca or bee pollen in it. That is simply awesome. I’d just hate to see someone buying bee pollen over good old fresh food, or stirring spirulina powder into water over just eating some veggies. I’ve seen it countless times and it costs a fortune without necessarily conferring the individual health benefits one would expect by personally financing your local health food store.
Play with superfoods, enjoy them, but be wary of the marketing hype. That’s all I’m trying to say.