I will have Science Thursday’s instead of Friday’s it just works better for me so I can’t say it is in honor of of one of my favorite shows on the radio, called Science Fridayanymore. I just like to enlighten myself occasionally. By the way, I did a post about living to be 120 years old a while back and just listened to this podcast that makes me think it won’t be so rare by the time I get to that age.
OK, so what the heck are superfoods?
In looking over the list it is pretty much any food that if you try and tell a 4-6 year old child it is good for them and then feed it to them they will say “Yuck” and refuse to eat it. Instead put it in a bowl and walk around eating, all the while keeping it above their heads so they can’t see in the bowl. If they ask tell ’em it’s adult food and they wouldn’t like it. Eventually, they will beg.
Seriously though, a superfood is the opposite of processed food. Rather than drawing the short straw on how many nutrients are packed in it got the elephantine nutrient proportions in a little tiny package. The book, which introduces 14 superfoods, seems to have popularized the term in recent years, but it has been around for a century (according to wikipediain the citations is says oxford english dictionary had the word in a 1914 version, which is of course a pay service so I will not be confirming this).
I am trying to work out a good diet on the principles that the South Beach Diet is a good lifestyle to follow, even it does need a little tweaking. So I read about superfoods and just had to consider adding them to my diet. Then I read some more and am starting to wonder if it isn’t just a bit of hype. It is more of a marketing tool to sell your little niche product nowadays. In fact, they passed laws in Europe to ban labeling things as superfoods unless it can be proven.
The idea of a food having higher nutritional value than another food is not ground breaking. Drawing the line and saying if you get here then you are super is just crazy. There is a continuum that will have things like refined white sugar and bleached white flour on one end, and whole foods such as blueberries, broccoli, walnuts, and salmon on the other end. The whole diet, everything you stuff in your pie hole for each meal will move your meal up and down the spectrum. You might miss out on some nutrients one meal only to make it up later. On top of all that there is more than one continuum vying for your attention. The pleasure/pain scale will have you looking for certain foods as well. This is the one that is always bombarded. Think commercials. When is the last time you saw a menu in a restaurant that emphasized how healthy or not things were, no they try and make you think you will be eating something almost magical. Like you just flew to Italy for a quick lunch, how posh.
Now I think it is interesting to note that you can affect your pain/pleasure scale just by associating things with badness. I have read some of Tony Robbins stuff, so this might sound like NLP, but that is just how the brain works. The idea behind using his stuff is to get your brain on your side and associate bad things with things that are bad for you instead of relating pleasure to things that are bad for you. I have never really gone all out and really done it but it has happened a few times by accident which makes me think I should. What makes us different than say many animals is that we can have long term goals that help override short term pleasure that might be harmful to the long term goals. For example, I have been drinking diet soda for years. I would get an urge and grab a can. The stuff was doctored up water with no bad effects other than you still have to drink water, or so I thought. Then I did a little research on the nutrasweet and splenda and found that neither of them is something I want in my body. I am not completely off them, but I will try many, many other options before I go for a diet pop. It is not something I have to urge myself to do, I just see the pop and I think, yummy wood alcohol poison. I have a very strong desire to find another beverage because I have associated something bad with the diet pop. Now a couple times I have had a craving and no regular soda available so I just drank a little figuring I have so drastically cut down and before I was drinking it by the case this will be very little. So it’s not like I am cured completely I just have some of them pleasure cravings that can be stronger at times.
So one major problem with superfoods, the whole concept, is that to find one a person goes on a hunt to find a food with a source of particular nutrients in abundance. Walnuts, for example, have omega-3 fatty acids and anti-oxidants. That is how it made the list. The concept is flawed though. You need to study that a particular food is helpful, not that the nutrient it contains is. All the science is controlled and the one particular substance is broken out and studied on its own. Then assumptions are made about foods that contain them. This is usually going to work but not always. The reverse is the goal as well for the companies trying to make money. They want to find the nutrient, or bunch of nutrients, and sell them in pill form. Sure some of it is good, but there is just nothing better than eating your five servings of fruits and veggies instead.
So lets say someone finds that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene has healthful benefits. So you go and pull out the beta-carotene and study it on its own to have a very controlled study. Then you find it causes cancer. The problem is with the assumption that you can study a supplement on its own then eat foods with that in it to get the benefit. Here is an excerpt from the Mayo Clinic about beta-carotene preventing cancer:
While diets high in fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene have been shown to potentially reduce the incidence of certain cancers, results from randomized controlled trials with oral supplements do not support this claim. There is some concern that beta-carotene metabolites with pharmacological activity can accumulate and potentially have cancer-causing (carcinogenic) effects. A higher, statistically significant incidence of lung cancer in male smokers who took beta-carotene supplements has been discovered. Beta-carotene/vitamin A supplements may have an adverse effect on the incidence of lung cancer and on the risk of death in smokers and asbestos exposed people or in those who ingest significant amounts of alcohol. In addition, high-dose antioxidants theoretically may interfere with the activity of some chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapy. Therefore, individuals undergoing cancer treatment should speak with their oncologist if they are taking or considering the use of high dose antioxidants. Beta-carotene in the amounts normally found in food does not appear to have this adverse effect.
So you go on a hunt for the next superfood and you come up with the idea that it might be algae, its green that’s healthy. So you do all the research you can and put together a website that is meant to market the stuff. You get doctors to say things like:
“A tiny protein called substance P is a powerful neurotransmitter.It is composed of arginine, lysine, and proline, all of which are available in AFA. The amazing effect of substance P is that it enhances learning ability and elevates our sense of well being. It does this by stimulating the brain cells to grow more dendritic spines of brain cell “arms” that reach out and communicate with other brain cells.” Algae to the Rescue,Karl J. Abrams.
Here is the offending website that is all hype and bs just to sell their product.
Never mind that all the same ingredients can be found in steak. These 3 items are amino acids and they are found in all protiens. But no, you need to get your protien from the algae. Give me a break! Now I am not saying that the algae is bad for you, who knows it might be good. Maybe all the comments about how they safely harvest it are true, maybe it really is a miracle cure for radiation exposure as the one guy on the site claims in his testimonial. But I am not going to bet on it. I will just eat some green leaf lettuce instead.
Oh, and by the way, when algae grows, there is usually more than one variety. How comforting to know that with Aphanizomenon Flos Aquae (AFA) a type of blue-green algae, the one you want, another similar variety called microcystis also grows, which is also a blue-green algae. Here is what the state of Maryland has to say about the bad stuff. These AFA algae if harvested wrong can contain all sorts of toxins. Some species of cyanobacteria, that is blue-green algae, produce all sorts of toxins: neurotoxins, hepatotoxins, cytotoxins, and endotoxins.
Now, back to superfoods in general. I think it is safe to take the list of 14 items found in the book, just watch out for the fake ones. What makes the 14 real you ask? Well, someone independent of the manufacturers was trying to compile a list of rich nutrient foods. Maybe they didn’t even know about chana dal beansand if they had there would be 15. I am not saying the 14 is the definitive list, I sort of doubt it is and I think things can be substituted in. Just have a category for leafy greens, eat 3 a week of whichever you want. They are all going to be good, if one is better then your body might start to crave it more than the others. Just understand how they came to be labeled as a superfood. Do a little research of your own if you hear about a new superfood and see if you really believe it once you see all the hype. If it is a whole unprocessed food that is not overly expensive compared to other alternatives, eat it, and enjoy with my blessing.
One more example if you don’t believe me yet. Some guy that is trying to sell black currants saw the super food band wagon go by and Mrs. Blueberry was looking very fat indeed. So Mr black currant did a little research and found that he too has a few things that other fruits don’t have (or he is just another unfortunately not so popular alternative) and so he started calling himself a superfood as well. Yeah, this is an episode of veggie tales, so what.
Oh and here it is in real life. Notice the playing on your fears advertising. Cure Alzheimer’s with currants. OK, wait they can’t say that can they, oh my bad here is what they actually said, notice the much weaker case…
Black Currants May Help Thwart Alzheimer’s
They contain compounds that protected cells in lab study
Yeah, that makes it sound so uncertain when you compare it to what they really want to say, and to what you actually think when you read it. Yeah they know what they are doing with that fear thing don’t they.
So again, I don’t want to poo on this thing too much, but the idea all came about from a book that became very popular and the term then had marketing pull. So now anyone that sells something is trying to have studies done that make their food a superfood because then they can sell it much faster. currants dot com sort of proves the point. Again, I ain’t saying the berry is bad, just labeling it as a superfood to sell more does not give it magical properties. The key to eating superfoods, if the idea appeals to you is to eat natural whole unprocessed foods. It probably does which is why the marketing works, it got me poking around. (I was going to write an article about what superfoods are along with magic recipes that use them, then I found out what is really going on.) So, eat five servings of fruits and veggies a day and reduce the intake of processed foods. If you want to eat foods that are labeled as superfoods, they will probably fit the description above. Just remember the label is meaningless and just a marketing ploy. There is no requirement that needs to be met to be called a superfood.