We live in an age of upgrades. We expect our broadband to be lightning fast, our TV to be high definition – and our food to be super. Search for the word “super” when doing an online grocery shop and you’ll be faced with an array of super berries, super seeds and super grains. Their selling point is not so much their taste but the extent to which they will enhance your health if you consume them, from increasing your muscle mass to reducing fatigue or prolonging your life. Such qualities are not mere add-ons, like cereals fortified with vitamins. Instead, the powers that a superfood offers apparently come from a force deep within it.
Once seen as faddish, these days many of us routinely buy items labelled as superfoods. This is partly because some regular foodstuffs such as broccoli and spinach have been rebranded for their health-giving qualities. Sales of once-exotic foods have been boosted by their newfound publicity. The volume of blueberries and cranberries sold in Britain quadrupled in the decade to 2018, at a time when the nation’s fruit and vegetable consumption was falling. Many supermarkets, particularly in wealthy urban areas, now routinely stock previously little-known products such as freekeh or kefir.
Though the term superfood is now commonly used, its legal definition remains woolly. Under European Union regulations, any product labelled as such must explain what the supposed health benefits are. America has no such rules. Even if the claims are correct – and often the evidence is marginal at best – critics warn that the description encourages us to fixate on a single foodstuff at the expense of a balanced diet. To live off goji berries alone would be no more healthy than dining on sausages for every meal.
I used to think that the superfood label was simply an excuse to charge more for something. The juice of organic mangosteens – a vitamin-rich fruit from South-East Asia, similar to lychees – can sell for an exorbitant $35 or more a litre, more than ten times the price of organic orange juice, on the promise to reduce pain and boost energy. Yet the idea that eating certain items will help keep us healthy plays into both our natural neuroses about our own wellbeing and the emotional role food plays in our lives (small wonder then, that parents of under-18s find food with health claims, like superfoods, particularly appealing). I used to disparage goji berries as raisins with pretensions. Now I love their sour-sweetness, eaten with plain yogurt, as much as the vague feeling that they’re doing me good. With every bite of my lunchtime roasted beetroot salad, I can almost feel the sweet purple roots boosting my immune system and stabilising my blood pressure. “Don’t you want to live for ever?” I joke with my ten-year-old, who despises the vegetable. Apparently not if it means he has to eat beetroot.
For most of human history, food and medicine have been closely related. Cooks often doubled as herbalists who sought to soothe, strengthen or calm. Long before we talked of “superfoods” we consumed tonics, home remedies and pick-me-ups. In Tudor Britain sage was believed to improve a person’s memory, an assertion that over five centuries later research appeared to back up: according to a study in 2017, eating the herb can stimulate greater cognitive function.
In 1949 a Canadian newspaper the Lethbridge Herald mentioned the word while referring to a particular muffin as “a superfood that contained all the known vitamins and some that had not been discovered” (not a claim that many muffins could get away with making today). Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the word was coined during the 1940s, the golden era of Marvel and DC Comics: as with superheroes, we hope superfoods will come to our rescue, even if we don’t fully believe in them.
It took nearly half a century for the idea of superfoods to gain traction. In the 1990s the most heavily touted superfoods were fruits, mainly berries, such as wild Maine blueberries and acai berries from the Amazon. For a while, pomegranate was supposedly the superfruit to beat them all. In 1999 the New York Times reported on new research suggesting pomegranate could be “effective in fighting disease and slowing ageing”. Then between 2004 and 2008, as ever more articles praised the healing qualities of antioxidants in pomegranates, American consumption of pomegranate juice increased six-fold. You can now find superfoods in every category, from drinks (alfalfa-and-wheat-grass juice, anyone?) to dairy products and baked goods such as acai-berry cheesecake or peach-and-cherry quinoa crumble.
One reason why modern superfoods seem like the perfect health kick is because, gram for gram, much of what we eat these days is lacking in nutrients. A quarter of British secondary-school children eat less than a single portion of vegetables a day, according to data from the Food Foundation – and that tiny amount may well come from pizza or canned baked beans. The average diet in America and Europe today is energy dense but nutrient poor, with lots of sugar and processed carbohydrates, and comparatively lacking in vitamins, minerals or fibre.
The health benefits of many such foods remain dubious at best. Supply doesn’t necessarily keep pace with demand: there weren’t enough pomegranate trees in the world to meet the sudden surge in consumption, so a lot of the supposedly pure pomegranate juice was diluted with cheaper fruits such as apple or grape. Some of the scientific research into superfoods has been financed by the food industry itself according to Marion Nestle, a nutritionist. “‘Superfoods’ is an advertising concept,” writes Nestle in her book “Unsavory Truth”. She spotted a poster at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in 2016 that touted new research into nuts, showing that in a cohort of overweight people, eating pecans was associated with lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar. Yet the change was so slight that it wasn’t statistically significant. More disturbingly, the poster didn’t disclose that the study was actually funded by the National Pecan Shellers Association.
It isn’t just food companies that are enjoying the benefits of superfoods. The Orana Foundation, set up by Jock Zonfrillo, a chef, is attempting to log and categorise foods eaten by indigenous Australians, in an attempt to preserve them. So far his team has noted more than 1,500 plants and animals; Zonfrillo estimates that the database should be able to record around 50,000 new ingredients. Some of these may turn out to be superfoods: unknown to most of the world, the Australian Kakadu plum – a green fruit with the taste of cooked pears which has long been eaten by Aboriginal people – contains up to 100 times as much vitamin C as an orange. The Orana foundation hopes to bring money to impoverished Aboriginal communities by helping them to commercialise the products.
Our thirst for superfoods is symptomatic of a food system that prizes quantity over quality. After the second world war, governments across the world wanted to ensure that their populations would never go hungry again. But diets have often narrowed at the expense of nutritional richness. Superfoods might not seem so super if the rest of our food supply did a better job of feeding us. We consume them like magic pills, as penance for our burger and fries we eat a handful of mystical berries or drink a green juice and keep our fingers crossed.•