Why superfoods aren’t really super

As a marketer, I salute the person who came up with the term “superfood”. But as someone with a science background, the term grates on my nerves, even more so when I hear “health-conscious” individuals in Kuala Lumpur talk about how expensive it is to eat healthy or lose weight.

The truth is, there’s no scientific basis to categorise these foods as super.

Sure, an avocado might be more healthful than a bag of chips, but eat 10 avocadoes a day and see where that’ll get you.

There’s no such thing as superfood

According to Edna Loh, who is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, there is no one food that is “perfectly superior” compared to the rest. Something good may not be as good when eaten in excess.

“Take avocado as an example,” she says. “Celebrated for having heart-healthy monounsaturated fat – it actually contains the energy content of regular oil and fat.”

She adds that according to the USDA database, one avocado can range between 300 to 350 calories. And while avocados may have health benefits, they may not work the same way for everyone.

Also let’s not forget the prices of avocados here – it can go up to MYR8 per fruit! For context, I could eat a full meal for that amount.

So how do foods make it onto that super list?

Usually it’s because: (a) they contain a high amount of nutrients and/or (b) are linked to some sort of disease prevention. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard, at some time or other, that such and such a food prevents cancer. Let’s list out some of the typical buzzwords as well: antioxidants, omega-3, plant-based, packed with vitamins and minerals!

Forget the hyped up “superfoods”

Truth, but also marketing. The same way those “breakfast is the healthiest meal of the day” studies are true but also a marketing tool. (That’s a story for another day!)

If you’re into the healthy eating lifestyle, you probably also follow recommendations offered by overseas “experts” on social media. This means that most of the “superfoods” you might hear about tend to be imported products and therefore, more costly.

I’ve always thought this was ridiculous. How is it possible that vegetables on one side of the globe are “less healthy” than those grown elsewhere? How could local fresh fish be any less nutritious than fish that has been transported, frozen, across continents?

I asked Edna if there were local alternatives to the foods we so commonly mistake as superior and she was quick to provide some suggestions.

Instead of avocado, a source of plant-based monounsaturated fat, try sesame oil. Replace salmon — a source of omega-3 fatty acid — with ikan tenggiri. Rather than buy expensive berries, try red dates or goji berries instead.

Also why would we assume that, with all our human complexities, there’s a one-size-fit-all diet that works for everyone?

(If you would like to find out how to come up with the best diet for you, based on your DNA, check out Advanx Health.)

Do your homework

Wherever you may live, look for healthy options that fit your budget. You don’t have to follow all the food advice given by social media personalities. Do your own research. Find what fits for you.

“It is always advisable to analyse the nutritional content of foods to gain better insight of what is healthy for you,” says Edna.

However, she adds that nutritional value is “never guaranteed in any food systems”.

“Ultimately, how the food is grown, transported, distributed and cooked will affect the quality and nutritional benefits.”

For the interested, Edna has some tips that will help you extract the most nutritional value out of your food:

  1. Check the dates on the packaging when buying produce. Especially if it’s meat. Avoid buying if it’s beyond the “use by” date.
  2. Avoid overcooking your vegetables. This can increase the loss of water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin B and vitamin C. Blanching time for vegetables generally varies between 1 – 2 minutes, depending on the size cut of the vegetables.
  3. Microwave your frozen vegetables (in microwave-safe containers, of course). Studies have shown that the retention of nutrients in frozen vegetables is highest when microwaved rather than steamed, boiled, and sauteed.
  4. Ensure that chilled foods stay chilled, and hot food stays hot. There is a temperature danger zone for bacteria to grow ie. between 5oC and 60oC. So when you take away food or cook in bulk, make sure you store your foods at the right temperature to prevent cross-contamination or quick-spoiling.

What else would you like to know about healthy eating? Let me know in the comments!

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