Superfoods: there’s no way to define them but they’re mushrooming. Some are doubtless beneficial while the value of others is dubious. Hugh Westbrook examines the rise and rise of so-called superfoods.

When George Orwell wrote that ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’, it’s probably safe to assume that he wasn’t thinking about 21st-century debates about nutrition. Yet how prescient his words were as nutritionists seek to establish which are the optimum foods available to us today. And now into the debate come superfoods.

The term superfoods has been gaining in currency in recent years. In a nod to Private Eye magazine, many foods are touted in articles as ‘the new superfood’, while books listing superfoods are appearing on the shelves with increasing frequency. Meanwhile, major manufacturers are beginning to flag up the ‘super’ qualities of their products.

So what is a superfood, and what is the accepted definition of the term? This is very easy to answer. There is no accepted definition. In fact, a quick poll of food regulators in some major markets reveals that there is not even likely to be one in the short-term. The UK’s Food Standards Agency said the use of the term has not been highlighted as a major concern. The US Food and Drug Administration said it is just a marketing term which has no regulation. Food Standards Australia New Zealand said it is a nutrition education issue rather than a regulation one. The conclusion is clear – the term superfoods is free to be used with abandon.

No scientific consensus

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So what do the nutritionists say? Even here, there is no real agreement. Two books currently selling well include Steven Pratt’s Superfoods RX and Gillian McKeith’s Living Food for Health. Dr Pratt’s book lists 14 superfoods, Dr McKeith’s lists 12. Hardly surprisingly, the lists are quite different.

McKeith concentrates on foods containing living enzymes, such as sprouted millet, alfalfa, flaxseeds and Stevia. As well as writing about them, she has started producing snacks and other products containing her 12 living foods.

Pratt’s approach is rather different. His 14 foods – beans, blueberries, broccoli, oats, oranges, pumpkin, salmon, soy, spinach, tea (green or black), tomatoes, turkey, Walnuts, yoghurt – are easily available and incorporated into a normal diet.

But looking at these lists makes it even harder to come up with a simple definition for the word superfood. Pratt has a clear idea of what constitutes a superfood. He told that the foods he has written about are all “nutrient-dense and calorie-sparse. They are all readily available, they have all had significant amounts of peer-reviewed articles proving their efficacy and all are natural.”

“Super means really good. If you look at certain healthy diets such as Mediterranean or Japanese, the superfoods are all found in abundance in one or more of those diets. They are also associated with longevity, which certain nutrients contribute to. The more people eat these nutrients, the longer they live, and there are 14 supernutrients which are found in abundance in the 14 superfoods. 

“I’m trying to teach people about good food groups. You could argue that every whole food has some super benefits to it.” Pratt added that he would welcome moves to regulate the term as he “would be happy to have the debate” and it would make people more aware of the benefits of the foods he describes.

Wheatgrass: the original superfood?

So now we know what superfoods are. Or do we? An Internet search for superfoods yields a herbal blend called Superfood as its first hit. Superfood, created by Dr Richard Schulze, is a blend of ingredients such as spirulina, spinach and wheatgrass which is mixed up with water and drunk. It is categorised as a food rather than a supplement.

Jill Davies, a qualified herbalist who worked with Schulze in the formulation of Superfood 15 years ago, said the term was coined by her colleague and has now been seized on by others.

She told that her definition of a superfood would be: “Easily digestible, total assimilation, totally utilised by the body, lots of health benefits and organic or clean-sourced.

“We use to think about products like juices and wheatgrass, very high quality foods with no digestion required and 100% assimilation. Juice goes straight into the bloodstream and can be utilised immediately and fully. Out of that grew the Superfood product.

Ease of digestion vital?

“I think the term has been hijacked and I think it’s getting worrying. It deflates the original intention, one part of which was to avoid digestive work. Therefore it’s not items like turkey and walnuts. Something like a walnut is hard to digest, so it exhausts the liver.”

So the experts cannot agree. And now it matters more than ever. Because the idea of superfoods is hitting the mainstream. As well as the books, the ‘super’ qualities of certain foods are now becoming the latest marketing tool. Heinz in the UK have just launched a major campaign based on precisely this notion, pitching it squarely on the shoulders of the superfood boom.

The campaign dubs the humble bean as the ‘Superbean’, a features a personified bean coming to terms with its nutritional qualities, with those highlighted including folic acid and high fibre content. Beans were one of Pratt’s 14 superfoods, so the marketing opportunities which can be built on the back of a best-seller such as his are potentially huge.

When the campaign was launched, Ben Pearman, marketing manager, Heinz Baked Beans, said: “Health is one of the biggest issues today, and consumers are increasingly aware of the positive nutritional benefits of the products they choose in the supermarket.” Tie that attitude in with the superfood boom, and you have a powerful advertising strategy.

Time for regulation

So given that the concept of superfoods is now in the public domain, given that certain foods have been dubbed as superfoods, and given that there is not currently an internationally recognised definition for what the term means, is it now time to regulate and introduce one?

The case is compelling. If nothing is done, anything of any health benefit will start to be dubbed a superfood, the importance of the items which do deserve to be singled out from the crowd will be diluted, and it will simply become another marketing term which means little. At the moment, we have a potentially useful term which it is almost impossible to define. It will be interesting to see if regulators decide in the future that it is a term which needs proper explanation.