With the public constantly becoming more aware about what we eat and the issues associated with our food, it seems like new superfoods are springing up daily. Often promoted by Instagram and Twitter personalities with perfectly shiny white smiles, there’s always a new obscure Mexican berry to try or a celebrity-endorsed cleanse that’ll have you running marathons by the end of the month. However, are any of them as super as they’re claimed to be? Will goji berries really change your life and will drinking nothing but juice help you become the Olympian you always knew you could be?
Now, to the untrained eye, blueberries are simply a nice addition to a smoothie and green tea is simply a nice accompaniment to a Wagamama’s Pad Thai. But do not be fooled! These ingredients are in fact, like any good superhero, champions in disguise. Hiding in plain sight, or at least the aisles of any good supermarket, they’re coming to save us from ageing and turn us into superhumans using the magical power of antioxidants!
There’s no doubt that a lot of the commonly cited “superfoods” are genuinely good for our health. Blueberries are filled with vitamins, particularly vitamin K which is useful for forming blood clots, and green tea is notably high in antioxidants, as well as certain minerals such as potassium and folic acid. But there is also a certain degree of hype surrounding anything labelled as a “superfood”. When surveyed on behalf of Bupa, 61% of participants reported buying something simply because it was labelled as a form of superfood, even though a lot of the research into these foods is scientifically dubious at best.
Perhaps no ingredient has benefitted more from this marketing than kale. Once solely the preserve of boring salads and nothing more than a leafy green served up by elderly relatives, kale is now crammed into everything from fizzy drinks to chocolate chips cookies and is eaten by people convinced that it’ll prolong their lives. But really, it’s just a leaf. It’s a very healthy leaf, high in fibre and full of various vitamins and iron, but eating one kale salad isn’t a cure all solution. Just because a food is filled with good things, it doesn’t mean that stuffing your body with it will make you able to run marathons or immune to all known diseases. As Leo Benedictus pointed out in a 2016 Guardian article, obsessively eating superfoods is like “trying to make your car go faster by putting in more petrol.”
A common theme associated with miracle foods is that of the “detox”, the idea of cleansing your body of all the horrible toxins inside it, leaving you clear and refreshed. Whether it’s vast volumes of water or drinking nothing but weirdly coloured juices, detoxing is often peddled as a reset for your body. An all-natural, super healthy version of turning your body off and on again.
However, your body is constantly detoxing itself without your assistance. Your kidneys and liver are specifically evolved to constantly remove toxins from what you eat and drink on a daily basis. Filling yourself with nothing but exorbitantly priced juices for a week does nothing to speed up or otherwise assist your body’s natural filtering systems. These juices, while providing a whole host of important vitamins and minerals, contain few of the other nutrients that are required for a healthy, balanced diet, such as fats which are essential for energy and proper brain function, as well as a tonne of sugar from the fruit.
But surely it’s good to detox? There’s surely no harm in at least trying to remove these toxins from your cells and your bloodstream?
In reality, there’s no such thing as “toxins”. Similarly to “chemicals”, “toxin” has simply become a buzzword thrown around by advertisers to convince you that you must buy their product, otherwise you will fill up with vague, nondescript but definitely harmful things.
To some degree, anything can be labelled as a toxin, if taken in a ludicrous enough quantity. It is possible to overdose on chocolate. However you would need to eat 85 kg of chocolate bars to consume enough theobromine to trigger an overdose. In contrast to genuine medical detoxification, such as in the case of drug or alcohol overdoses, dietary cleansing lacks any real scientific basis at all and simply relies on the misunderstanding and fear around pseudo-scientific language such “toxins”.
It is hard to see the superfood trend disappearing any time soon, particularly as chefs and home cooks alike continue to experiment with new ingredients and cooking methods, all of which could be tomorrow’s next big thing. Even black pudding, the fatty bloody oaty sausage of a many a Northern breakfast, was claimed to be an iron and zinc-rich superfood back in 2016. And while black puddings are definitely delicious (don’t dare question me on this), they were never going to make it onto the table of any Hollywood megastars, nor were they ever going to turn me into an overnight Olympian. While we could all benefit from a bit more fruit and veg in our diets and almost certainly a bit less bacon, don’t believe the hype of the superfood. Enjoy that blueberry muffin for what it is, not because it’s magical.