THE BLOG

Superfoods: Miracle Foods or a Waste of Money?

10/07/2014 17:02 BST | Updated 09/09/2014 10:59 BST

The Superfood! Does it wear spandex and emit powers from its fingers like any good superhero? Does it have a separate identity that only comes out when danger strikes? Will it save the day when junk food rears its ugly head? All shall be revealed in: The Superfood! Coming soon to a grocery store near you.

Now that I have successfully removed the image of a piece of wild (Omega 3 filled) salmon walking down the road with a cape attached out of my head, it is back to reality.

What is the obsession with superfoods and is there any reason?

Loving Them

A superfood is a term used to describe certain foods and ingredients which have supposed health benefits. Usually the foods are loaded with nutrients, fibres and antioxidants. It is argued that eating superfoods may lower your risk of developing cancer, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure and that they can also boost your immune system, prevent certain types of infections and assist in weight control.

Never a day goes by without one of our favourite blogs putting together the must have, definitive guide to superfoods. Sure, one of our favourites, The Greatist, even has a whole section on their website for the superfood.

BBC Good Food: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/top-10-superstar-superfoods-0

The Greatist: http://greatist.com/superfoods

Men's Health: http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/New_American_Diet_Superfoods/

NHS: http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/superfoods/pages/superfoods.aspx

One day it is acai berries, which are said to promote heart and skin health and even regulate weight. The next it is kale, with its high levels of iron and Vitamins A and C, which is flying the superfood flag. And then all of a sudden, dark chocolate is the food of the day, because of its antioxidants and high vitamins and minerals. Phew, it is hard to keep up.

Limitations

So while there may be benefits to eating superfoods, it also turns out that there are some limitations.

1) Just Claims

"There's no official definition of what makes a superfood," says Marisa Moore, RD, LD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

In fact, the EU has banned the use of the term on packaging because there is no actual scientific backing to it. As Sioned Quirke from the British Dietetic Association states "'Superfoods' is simply a marketing term that has become trendy over the last few years. Companies and marketing teams will often put whatever they can on a label to hook you into a purchase."

A specific food type may claim to contain additional vitamins or calcium, but it is unclear what volume is required to get to the supposed health benefits. Garlic, for example, contains a nutrient believed to help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. But you'd have to eat up to 28 cloves a day to match the doses used in the lab. At least you could guarantee there would be no vampires around.

2) Some Negatives

While there are certainly benefits to many of the superfoods out there, there can also be some negative side effects, particularly if the superfood is consumed in great volume.

One good example is with cranberries. There is no doubting the health benefits: antioxidants, vitamin C, fiber etc. which can all help reduce urinary tract infections, heart disease and aid oral health. However, when too much cranberry juice is ingested, it can cause stomach aches and diarrhea and when way too much (and I mean a lot) is consumed, it can even cause kidney stones. There is not enough information out there flagging these points.

3) Balanced Diet

The main worry with superfoods is that people eating them will do so to the detriment of other good food types. Our bodies are built to eat a balanced diet and that includes a healthy amount of vegetables, carbohydrates, lean meats, dairy etc. Eliminating any of these food types and gorging on one supposed superfood is bad for you.

There is also a fear that people will think that by eating one superfood, it will combat lots of other bad food choices. "No food, including those labelled 'superfoods', can compensate for unhealthy eating," explains Alison Hornby, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA)

4) What Next

On balance, I do believe there is some role for the superfood in your family life. I've discussed the merits of bumping up your superfood intake, rather than taking chemical health supplements before. Likewise, I am a big supporter of avoiding empty calories i.e. if you're going to eat tasty food, make sure it's as good for you as possible. However, there is no reason to eat that one ingredient solely to the detriment of others. Include superfoods as a healthy part of your balanced diet and you're on to a winner.

Get Your Superfood Fix

So what next? Well first up, there is no need to go out and spend hundreds on the latest food fad. This is a great resource on whether it's worth shelling out on certain pricey superfoods. Well for the Goji berries, pomegranate juice and fresh salmon out there, the jury would suggest a no.

Any of my regular readers will know that I am a big fan of the efficient storecupboard. It doesn't have to be packed with a thousand tins and 45 different spices. It just has to work for you and enable you to cook healthy, balanced meals.

A quick rummage around these, has brought out a number of supposed superfoods. I don't include these ingredients in my store cupboard because some marketeer convinced me they were 'super', but because I know they are good for me (and also very versatile). They also represent a good mix of dairy, fruit and vegetables, oils and protein.

Why not start with these?

Milk (Low Fat)

It has been argued that milk is the original superfood, packed with calcium, Vitamin D and protein.

Recipe: Muesli with milk and banana

Cheese (Low Fat)

Calcium, calcium, calcium! Strong bones all round.

Recipe: Beetroot and Goat's Cheese Salad (this one even has beetroot in it, which is a popular 'superfood')

Eggs

Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods out there. A single egg contains pretty much a bit of everything we need to eat per day. Check this out.

Recipe: Frittata with Spinach, Onion and Cheese

Frozen Berries

Anytime you look up a superfood, some sort of berry features on the list - blueberries are supposed to be the best, but there are cranberries, Gogi berries etc. Instead of spending lots of money on fresh berries, why not keep a bag of frozen ones in the freezer. They are just as good!

Recipe: Frozen Blueberry Yoghurt

Frozen Spinach

Dark leafy vegetables are great for overall health and spinach is one such option. The possible health benefits of consuming spinach include improving blood glucose control in diabetics, lowering the risk of cancer, lowering blood pressure, improving bone health, lowering the risk of developing asthma and more.

Recipe: Winter Vegetable Lasagne

Brown Rice

Brown rice is considered a wholegrain as it still holds it's shell with all the healthy goodness. It is also high in fiber, rich in oxidants and full of naturally occurring oils

Recipe: Spanish Rice with Tuna

Tinned Salmon

Salmon is a great source of Omega 3 which is vital in the combat against heart disease. While fresh wild salmon is up there with the best, the Heart Foundation also counts tinned salmon as a source of all the good stuff, so keep a tin of this in your store cupboard.

Recipe: Fish Pasties

Olive oil

Olive oil is high in antioxidants which is keep in fighting some key diseases. Use it where possible in cooking, but do remember it is a fat, so always measure it out before using.

Recipe: 3 Bean Salad

Onion

Onions have been used for centuries to cure inflammations and infections. Raw onion encourages the production of good cholesterol keeping your heart healthy.

Recipe: Mexican Mince (though onion sneaks into almost every dish!)

What do you think? Is there such thing as a superfood?

Would love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment here or Tweet me (@siansplan)

About Sian's Plan

Sian's Plan is an online meal planner that helps busy people eat well. The service is named after its Founder Sian Breslin, a professional home economist who's taught thousands of families to cook. On the platform, Sian has created hundreds of recipes to help families prepare healthy, affordable and fuss-free meals in under 35 minutes. More information can be found at www.siansplan.com.