'This is the crux of the superfood obsession, it turns out: effective, appealing marketing'
Lucy Roberts | 13 June 2016

Superfoods. A word that is definitely achieving the desired social buzz in the #healthyeating #fitspo #bikinibody world of Instagram and Twitter that gurus of the trade delight in. May they ever continue to suck in an audience of teenagers and young people, along with the expected ‘yummy mummy’ crowd, to wow with their aesthetically pleasing fruity, veggie and nutty dishes, that gain them the following and the brand appeal that is at the heart of the blogger movement. Despite being so popular in the magazines and social media feeds of so many, the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word sounds dubious: “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.” Surely, with the right finely-tuned pseudo-scientific research riding alongside this definition, a colossal variety of foods could be described as such? This is the crux of the superfood obsession, it turns out: effective, appealing marketing.

The most renowned superfoods, championed by the faces of the ultimate healthy lifestyle, figures such as Jamie Oliver, Clean Eating Alice and Deliciously Ella, seem to come under three categories: fruit, such as blueberries, goji berries, and pomegranates (the more exotic, the better, of course), the antioxidants and phytonutrients of which are claimed to help prevent cancer; vegetables, preferably bland, green and ripe for a good blend in a kale/celery/spinach smoothie; and seeds/nuts, favoured especially by the vegan community. Despite how pretty these dishes may look, it is increasingly easy to fall foul of the current fad, as wild claims are made and promoted en masse by the food industry and the self-promoting bloggers who profit from it. For example, many tests conducted to find the nutritional value in these superfoods are carried out using quantities that would be very difficult for most people to incorporate into their diets and therefore produce highly unrealistic results. This is the case with goji berries, which despite being sold as a health food, have only been subject to tests with largely inconclusive results, with the NHS website damning their glory by stating that only “purified extracts of the fruit at much higher concentrations than the products contain” are used to justify these claims to the food and advertising authorities.

However, that is not to say that all food-related scientific research is unreliable. Indeed it is far easier to be taken in by these exotic berries with their seemingly mythical claims for prosperity than that which has always been deemed ‘bad’ for us, such as chocolate and red wine. A highly regarded 2012 study (found on the NHS website) on the effects of dark chocolate and cocoa products on patients’ blood pressure, varying the quantities given from 3g to 105g daily, concluded that, although it may only be a short-term fix, these chocolates had a “small but statistically significant effect in lowering blood pressure,” as stated in the conclusion of the study. So maybe a little ‘choccie’ treat is not so wrong after all!

As this is a student magazine, it seems fitting to state that in most red wine cases it is the grapes doing all the good work (rather than the alcohol). However, an interesting study (by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 August 2012.) which involved feeding up mice until their high-fat diet replicated the fatty liver and diabetic symptoms many obese humans suffer with, showed that those mice fed with grape extracts stored less liver fat and had a lower blood sugar in comparison to those eating regular mouse pet food.

My conclusions on the matter seem to be that the evidence that many of these glamorous and ‘healthy’ products rely on is actually conducted on a scale that is far from realistic and often does not provide the records of other foods eaten alongside the studies. One thing the NHS is still sure of is that, no matter what the evidence on superfoods shows, keep getting in your five-a-day and a balanced diet and you stand a better chance than those who do not. But you knew that already, right?


Original image by Kaity Eames.

James Routledge 2016