Superfoods. There’s no doubting they sound appealing: the idea that some foods are healthy, some unhealthy, and some super healthy. So-called superfoods have gained popularity in recent years, with one study showing that 61% of British people have reported buying supposed superfoods like activated almonds, green powders, protein balls and more. But are superfoods actually better for us than other healthy foods?
In truth, whilst superfoods are often nutritious, what actually sets these foods apart has more to do with food marketing budgets than their effects on our health. As clever marketing campaigns promoted the concept of one healthy food being better in some magical intrinsic way than others, many of us (literally) bought into it. Take avocados for example, sales have tripled in the past 5 years, with today over 6,000 avocados being sold in the UK every hour.
One downside to superfoods are that the title alone may cause people to focus on a few specific foods, blinding them to other equally nutritious options that aren’t as hyped. Nutrition is fabulously complex and different for everybody. Variety in our diet is important not only to gain the benefit of eating a wide array of essential vitamins and minerals, but also to prevent us from eating too much (or too little) of a particular nutrient. It also keeps our meals interesting and flavourful!
We had a look at some of the most common ‘superfoods’ and separated fact from fad to help inform your healthy choices.
All vegetables contain different amounts of vitamins and minerals, which also vary depending on the soil they are grown in. However, by weight, typical kale contains more calcium, vitamin B6 – and indeed calories – than typical cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach or carrots. Typical kale also contains less vitamin A than carrots, less iron, magnesium or potassium than spinach and less fibre than brussels sprouts.
Kale is very easy to grow all over the UK, which is great if you are trying to eat locally. It’s good for you as part of a balanced diet.
No good evidence shows that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables with kale is any better than eating plenty of them without.
Avocados contain lots of healthy monounsaturated fat, which helps to protect your cardiovascular system. They are also rich in potassium, fibre and vitamins B, E, and C. As previously mentioned, they have surged in popularity in the UK and are loved for their creamy texture and mild flavour.
Avocados do contain more soluble fibre than other fruit and contain a number of useful minerals including iron, copper and potassium. They are good for you as part of a balanced diet.
Whilst avocados do contain lots of ‘good’ fats, you can also get them from other foods like oily fish, nuts, uncooked olive oil and sunflower oil. Avocados also have a bad eco-rating. Deforestation to make way for avocado trees is now a problem in Mexico. In California, where there is a long-term water shortage, so providing water for avocado trees is an even more serious problem.
Freshly roasted, or grated, pickled or juiced, beetroot is enjoying revival in popularity in the UK. Beetroots are one of the richest sources of glutamine, an amino acid essential to the health and maintenance of our gut. They’re also rich in fibre, which, as well as supporting bowel function, helps to support the environment of the gut and the beneficial bacteria that reside there.
Betalain compounds, responsible for the root’s red colour, have been shown to have high anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities. This means they help to protect cells from damage and may be helpful in the fight against age-related conditions, such as heart disease and cancer. Beetroot has also been proven to lower blood pressure due to the nitric oxides that your body converts nitrates into. Beetroots are very easy to grow in the UK which is great for reducing food miles and benefiting the environment.
It is possible that the nitrates in beetroot could also form nitrosamines in your body, so EFSA recommends eating no more than about two beetroots a day. They should be enjoyed in moderation as part of a diet containing fruit and vegetables of all colours and types.
Seaweed is definitely having a moment right now. It comes in many edible forms – nori, kelp, sea grapes, dulse and plenty more.
Seaweed is a rare example of a non-animal product that is rich in vitamin B12, which makes it an important food for those choosing a to eat a vegan or plant based diet. It is also a good source of calcium, iron, iodine, fibre, and alginate.
Too much iodine can cause thyroid problems and weight gain. Also, depending on where it grew, some seaweed may even contain a lot of heavy metals, which, in large quantities, could do you harm. Therefore, like all foods, seaweed should be consumed in moderation.
Famed for its health benefits, especially its anti-inflammatory properties, Turmeric is a spice which has received a lot of press coverage.
Much of the publicity surrounding the spice is thanks to the main active component curcumin, which makes up about 3 per cent of the root by weight. Curcumin has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Consuming black pepper (piperine) alongside turmeric increases absorption of curcumin – the health promoting compound.
There is still much to learn about the effects and interactions of turmeric; to date much of the evidence has been drawn from animal and in vitro studies with more research needed to evaluate its effects on human health. Additionally, the same agents in turmeric that support digestive health can cause irritation when taken in large amounts.
No single food item can make you suddenly healthy. Whilst many so-called superfoods contain good sources of vitamins, minerals, and fat, it’s best to get these from a variety of sources. Eating too much of any one thing can lead to consuming more of one mineral than your body needs and may stop it from properly absorbing something else. If you eat a balanced, seasonal diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, everything is a ‘superfood.’
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