Debunking Superfood

Isabel Hulkower, Columnist

Nutritional advice is a dime a dozen in our current landscape of dietary confusion. Conflicting fads and misinformation urge consumers every which way, recommending everything from all-smoothie diets to paleo-style meat-centricity. However, many pro­grams converge on a single topic: superfood.

Superfoods have become extremely pop­ular in recent years, and their clout has in­spired thousands of blog posts and product reconfigurations. Kale, wild salmon, açaí ber­ries, avocados and green tea are a few nota­ble superfoods that most people are familiar with. But what exactly is a superfood? Call­ing something a superfood implies that it is nutritionally dense, beneficial to health and presumably sparse in calories. Some claims go further, delving into their antioxidant properties, utility for weight loss and other health benefits such as preventing stroke and heart disease. In reality, there is no set definition for what a superfood is. While the term evokes vitality and wellness, there are no criteria to differentiate a superfood from all the other garbage you love to eat.

This lack of criteria is not surprising, how­ever, because the category “superfood” is not scientific whatsoever. Think of it as a desig­nation rather than a genre of food and, per­haps even more precisely, think of it as a mar­keting technique. Critics and nutritionists have held that superfood is merely a buzz­word, convincing buyers to believe some­thing is nourishing and influencing them to purchase it despite their dubious knowledge of the product or its actual benefits. Many of these foods tend to be somewhat exotic and extremely pricey. Foods like goji berries, wheatgrass and quinoa are now widely avail­able and popular for their vague promises of nutrition, despite their high prices.

Undeniably, we are living in the age of superfood. The presence of these nutrition­al powerhouses has completely saturated our culture; I even had the good fortune of coming upon the “superfood” section of the menu at The Cheesecake Factory during a re­cent visit. Their meteoric rise to prominence, however, is not unheard of. Food trends ebb and flow. We are currently as a stage in the cycle where consumers are looking for purer and more wholesome food and shifting away from the extremely processed, non-nutri­tious food that has dominated the market for years. This is a huge shift in the food industry as a whole; the cult of the superfood is just one of many symptoms. Of course, the abil­ity to opt for these alternatives is extremely class-restricted, as this shift to more nourish­ing food is inaccessible to many consumers.

Clearly superfood is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Products that bear the buzzword have a sort of health halo around them, marketing them as little morsels of panacea. Of all of the dieting fads on the market, superfoods are certainly among the most benign. Eating a diet rich in these products will certainly not harm you, and will most likely be at least somewhat benefi­cial. There is no arguing about these foods’ nutritional value — they’re fruits and veg­etables, so of course they are full of vitamins. The real trouble lies with the intersection of marketing and health. Consumers are easily misled to spend their hard-earned money on overpriced foods that offer little to no added nutritional value compared to cheaper alter­natives. To balance these issues, it’s impera­tive to eat wholesome food, but always be wary of branding and focus on eating good vegetables rather than opting for a specific superfood.