03 Feb 2014

A wide range of foods – from freekeh to parsnips, kale to quinoa – have been tipped as the ‘superfoods’ of 2014. With the rise of the health-conscious consumer, few would doubt the continued marketing potential of ‘superfoods’, but when subject to evidence based assessment, how super are they?

The term ‘superfoods’ seems to have been used first by Aaron Moss in the journal Nature Nutrition in 1998, and it has remained a favourite of newspaper and magazine articles making dietary recommendations and commentary.

Foods tend to earn the qualifier ‘super’ if they have unusually high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, protein, fibre or other nutrients with health-boosting properties. Blueberries are perhaps the best known superfood, due to their high concentration of anthocyanins, thought to inhibit the growth of cancerous cells.

Blueberries are also rich in other antioxidants which have been shown to stop the free radicals that can cause high levels of oxidative stress in the body, leading in turn to cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Antioxidants may also have the ability to reduce inflammation in the brain, which is associated with cognitive decline.

The burden of proof

But providing scientific proof of the beneficial health effects of superfoods such as blueberries is extremely difficult. In the test tube, antioxidants can be shown to help cells resist oxidative stress, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the complex processes which occur within the human body.

As a result, the very concept of superfoods is dismissed by many commentators. “Evidence that any one food has specific effects on long-term health is lacking and usually more to do with PR and celebrity endorsement than scientific evidence of the kind that would be required if a drug was to make such claims,” says Dr Susan Jebb of Oxford University.

Alison Hornby, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association thinks that superfoods may actually damage health by encouraging consumers to think they can compensate for other, less healthy choices. "If people mistakenly believe they can undo the damage caused by unhealthy foods by eating a superfood, they may continue making routine choices that are unhealthy and increase their risk of long-term illness."

Too much regulation?

Yet some within the food industry would argue that many superfoods have genuine nutritional benefits and that current legislation requiring health claims to be backed with stringent levels of evidence actually discriminates against such products.

Since 2007, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has outlawed the marketing of products as "superfoods" unless accompanied by a specific medical claim supported by credible scientific research. As of May 2013, fewer than 250 claims have been allowed, out of 1,800 made.

“By requiring proof of a cause-and-effect relationship between a proposed health claim and the food or nutrient in question, EFSA is distorting the true state of nutritional science,” says Dr Robert Verkerk of the Alliance for Natural Health International. He argues that a graded system would be more appropriate given the complexity of the food science behind these claims.

Marketing power

Yet the ‘superfoods’ label continues to be utilised – not only by some media, but by some companies in both the food manufacturing and food retail sectors which are trying to position their products to be appealing to health conscious consumers. For instance, the food chain Pod, founded in 2005, features ‘superfood chicken’ (containing quinoa, barley and spirulina), ‘superfood eggs’ and ‘supergrain salad’ in its winter menu. And launched in 2011, IQ ‘superfood’ chocolate is marketed as having “superior nutritional value compared to other high cocoa content chocolate bars”.

Whatever the scientific questions, the term ‘superfood’ clearly retains a power as a marketing tool, and needs to be considered carefully in any evaluation of health and wellbeing products.

Further Information

The rise of the health conscious consumer and the role of scientific evidence in the marketing of foods which are marketed as ‘better for you’ will be discussed in detail in The Food Matters Live conference in November.

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