Summary: Researchers ask whether so-called “superfoods” are as good for you as people say they are, and if so, how they should be used as part of a balanced diet.
Source: University of New South Wales
Everyone has heard of the good saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
It’s a phrase that suggests they were the first to label apples as a “superfood” long before the term became popular.
But now, hardly a week goes by without a new superfood popping up on social media, promising amazing health benefits. Recent crazes include quinoa, chia seeds and kale.
More important, however, is whether eating foods like kale four times a week supports bone health. Or has someone pulled off the greatest marketing campaign ever?
Food and nutrition expert Associate Professor Jayashree Arcot from UNSW’s School of Chemical Engineering says the term superfoods is sometimes thrown around too easily by “lifestylers”. Although there is no universally agreed definition for “superfoods”, there is an appreciation of the health benefits due to the presence of bioactive substances and compounds found in them.
“Scientifically, there is no such thing as a superfood—basically, foods or compounds that are rich in nutrients because they have properties that can influence health,” says Associate Professor Arcot.
“However, the word unfortunately misleads people into thinking that certain foods have amazing nutritional and health properties and that consuming them can solve all health problems.
“While there is no single food group that holds the key to unlocking the greatest health benefits, we know that some foods are better than others. When we pay more attention to taking care of our health, we start to pay more attention to eating naturally.
“Diet alone cannot solve health problems—but it can play a role as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. If the goal is to lose weight, eating a superfood like blueberries won’t do it by itself.
But to have the same health effect is to find the right combination and balance of these foods.
It is not an excellent food for everyone
Go back 5 to 10 years, before the term “superfoods” was trendy, the phrase “functional foods” was used in the food and health community.
Functional foods are used in the context of physiologically important foods, and reduce the risk of developing diseases due to the addition or removal of certain substances.
Later, the term “superfoods” was coined to describe foods with purported health benefits. However, Prof. Arcot, each food can be classified functionally: because they all have a certain effect on the body.
“We know that drinking high-calcium milk is good for the strength of our bones and teeth, or that eating foods rich in vitamin A is wonderful for our eye health,” she says.
“On the one hand, foods high in fat are often avoided because of the risk of raising cholesterol. But this will be especially important for someone who is already at high risk because we know that there are good fats like avocados and chia seeds that are being hailed as superfoods.
Kale may be one of the most common foods mentioned when it comes to superfoods. Although several studies have shown that cabbage has antioxidant and anticarcinogenic potential, there is still a lack of evidence in the literature to conclude that eating cabbage provides more health benefits than other cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage.
“No one is going to tell you that if you start eating a lot of cabbage, it’s bad for you. For example, unless you’re prone to kidney stones, you probably have too many oxalates – a compound found in leafy vegetables that you recommend to have less of in your diet,” says A/Prof. Arcot.
“So there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this.”
Can superfoods still save?
A/Professor Arcot says that we need to pay attention to the nutritional profile of food intake, to know if it is appropriate for the health problem we are talking about.
“There’s no denying that eating a balanced diet is important to one’s overall health,” she says.
“For example, the Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy eating plan that includes foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and seafood, and is believed to support brain function and promote heart health.”
A/Prof Arcot says compounds found in certain foods have the potential to prevent or delay certain chronic diseases such as heart attacks, which have chronic reactions in the body.
“Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and cranberries are a food source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, and these properties can reduce inflammation. They cannot be called superfoods because randomized controlled trials are needed to evaluate their effectiveness in reducing inflammation.”
Superfood story sequel
One of the latest “superfoods” is turmeric, a common spice used in cooking, which contains a powerful compound known for its powerful anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin.
But how much of this compound should we actually consume before it has some effect on the body?
A/Professor Arcot said that this is a complex area and more research is needed to find out.
“Sometimes the compounds we need are only present in minute amounts in the food we eat,” she says.
“There is still a long way to go in terms of research before we know the exact amount needed to produce these changes in our body. But we know that the results can be cumulative over time,” she says.
“It’s all about preventing health problems – and a healthy diet with proper nutrition contributes to overall well-being.”
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