IN the Oxford Dictionary, superfood is defined as “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being”.
However, there is actually no standard definition or criteria of superfoods by any authority. Cancer Research UK states that the term “superfood” is a marketing gimmick with little scientific basis to the claim.
So, what is the superfood trend about?
The term superfoods was introduced by marketers and has been a fad on the internet, with lists of superfoods coming out annually, e.g. chia seed, kombucha, quinoa, goji berries, kale, green tea, cocoa, salmon and more.
Food products enriched with certain contents like omega-3, antioxidants or vitamins are also touted as superfoods.
Green tea is often advertised to aid in weight loss and prevent cancer, while DHA (a form of omega-3) is claimed to be good for children’s brain development.
Looking at the hype around superfoods, this article examines the truth behind the claims and how we should cultivate a healthy dietary habit instead of just focusing on superfoods.
Are superfoods really ‘super’?
Superfoods do have nutritional contents beneficial to health. Naturally found in oily fish, omega-3 is a type of essential fatty acid important for metabolism, while green tea is high in catechin, an antioxidant that scavenges free radicals harmful to health.
Superfood claims are usually accompanied with proof of studies showing high concentration of these substances in the food, or how these substances can prevent or even cure different diseases.
But most of these studies are sometimes inconclusive, with mixed findings being reported, and it is unlikely that any single food can have an effect on any disease on its own.
There is some basis in such studies but they usually do not reflect our real diet.
Research shows that catechin can suppress the growth of cancer cells, but laboratory studies use purified extracts of these beneficial substances from the said food.
Moreover, preliminary studies that are tested on animals do not accurately reflect effects in the human metabolism, with other factors to consider.
Some human trials on single or multiple derivatives from plant or animal foods are poorly designed, with a small number of subjects, short duration of study, and a lack of safety data, where there may be short term effects that warrant cautious judgement on its use.
Superfoods still can be a part of your family’s diet. However, eating too much of one type of food does not give you all the nutrients you need.
The bioactive compounds of cocoa in dark chocolate do have health benefits, but if eaten excessively, it becomes bad due to its high content of sugar and fat, leading to other health problems.
A superfood fan with poor dietary habits and lifestyle will not make a difference. Instead of following trends, cultivate a good dietary habit which is key to your health.
Focus on a healthy diet
Instead of relying on superfoods, aim for a healthy diet that is Balanced, Moderate, and Varied (BMV) for the family.
Achieve a balance in the diet by eating more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and less salt, sugar, fat and oil, according to the recommended intake.
Practise moderation by not eating too much or too little of something.
A variety of food in the diet is also important to provide different nutrients needed by the body.
One way for your children to have a healthy diet is by encouraging them to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables with different colours.
Different colours indicate different nutrients, e.g. red fruits and veggies like tomatoes are high in lycopene, an antioxidant. Yellow/orange ones like carrots or papaya have beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A by the body. Purple ones like blueberries and beetroots contain anthocyanin, another antioxidant.
Parents should also be conscious of the nutrient content of food products they purchase. Read labels, look for nutrient information panels and food ingredients, and know what you are feeding your children.
Teach children about a healthy diet, and guide them to look at labels and ingredients when buying food.
Beware of marketing gimmicks, and do not be tricked by attractive packaging and bombastic words.
Your dietary habits have a bigger influence on your health than a couple of superfoods.
Superfoods are not harmful but you do not need to rely on them entirely. After all, there is no single food that can provide all the required nutrients for health.
It is more practical to practise BMV in your diet based on the Malaysian Food Pyramid, every time and everywhere.
Superfoods that are popular online tend to be pricey and uncommon in Malaysia as the trends start from Western countries.
However, we also have our own affordable version of superfoods, such as tempeh (rich in protein, fibre, calcium), spinach (vitamin K, calcium, iron), rambutan (fibre, vitamin C), and papaya (vitamin A, folate).