Be wary of so-called 'Superfoods'

Photo illustration by ROBERT JOHNSON/Standard-Examiner
Story by Jamie Lampros
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Mon, Nov 4, 2013
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Everyone would love to find a miracle food that could ensure long-term health and longevity, but is there really such a thing?

“Superfoods” can be found everywhere, from local grocery, health and online stores to kiosks in the mall. They come in the form of miracle teas, miracle salts, miracles berries ... and more and more marketers promise they will cure disease, lower your cholesterol, curb cravings and help you drop the pounds.

“When foods are highly processed, packaged, made into bars and supplements with the claims that they prevent or cure a disease, consumers need to be cautious,” said Amy Cain, a registered dietitian at Ogden Clinic. “Claims are most likely marketing speak with little scientific backing.”

Superfoods, a term dietitians and nutritionists do not use in their vocabulary, claim to be those that contain large amounts of antioxidants. While there are foods that should be on our daily diet lists, such as green leafy vegetables, whole grains and fruits, Ogden Clinic registered dietitian Rina Jordan said ascribing to the “magical” qualities in them is an overstatement.

“And it is not only the packaged and marketed foods that companies try to have you think of when you hear the term superfood,” Jordan said. “There are many natural foods that have come to be associated with this term.”

For instance, Jordan said, blueberries, salmon, green tea, oats, yogurt, garlic, acai, kefir, legumes and walnuts are often touted as nutritional powerhouses, or offering super health protection, or slowing the aging process.

“These foods can definitely be a part of healthy diet for a lifetime and are great choices, as they do offer many nutrients, antioxidants and other benefits,” she said. “But as with everything else, balance is key. These foods constitute only a very partial list of the wide array of wonderful and palatable food choices that people should be making part of their snacks and meals.”

Jean Weinert, a registered dietitian at Tanner Clinic in Layton, said while the most important part of a healthy diet is adequate amounts of carbohydrates, protein, fat and calories, consuming these whole foods on a regular basis as part of a balanced diet has been shown to improve health and fight disease. However, she said, the danger comes when people consume supplements which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute discontinued a trial on the antioxidant beta carotene after discovering those taking the supplements had developed more cases of lung cancer and their overall death rate was 17 percent higher.

Another study published in The Cochrane Library found that people taking supplements containing one or more antioxidant were 4 percent more likely to die. Cain said the bottom line is to get your antioxidants from food, not supplements, and to remember that no single food item has the superpower to cure disease or replace a balanced diet.

“A consumer’s first choice should be to choose plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and beans,” she said. “There are so many varieties to choose from nowadays that people can really eat well while eating foods they really like. Consumers have to wade through miles of nutritional claims when grocery shopping and planning meals. Sources of these claims are product advertisers, sometimes the media and a host of other uninformed sources.”

Eating well and avoiding a nutritional wasteland should not narrow our choices to a select few, Cain said. The best strategy to eating well is to think unprocessed, color and variety.

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