Are superfoods really that super?

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Green and swampy - must be superfood.
Green and swampy - must be superfood. Photo: Tim Grey

Imagine if there was a company claiming it had a "super tablet". This tablet could help aid digestion, improve liver function, prevent osteoporosis, lower cholesterol, fight cancer, maintain joint flexibility, inhibit blood-clotting, keep a lid on asthma, protect against diabetes, reduce the risk of macular degeneration, ward off depression and improve antioxidant status (whatever that is).

Would you be suspicious of such a tablet? Or fork over hundreds of your hard-earned immediately? Well, the above is just some of the potential benefits spruiked by health gurus, bloggers and multinational companies about green-of-the-hour, kale.

Yes, kale. Top banana in ever-growing list of so-called superfoods. Super-friends of the curly cabbage include blueberries, chia seeds, quinoa, and even the humble rolled oat.

Illustration: Matt Golding.
Illustration: Matt Golding. 

Hang on minute. The rolled oat? Since when is porridge a superfood? 

Uncle Tobys started using the term on its Traditional Oats and Quick Cook Oats in 2013.

"In considering the term 'superfood', we took the understanding of both the nutrition community and the broader community into account," said a spokesperson for Nestle Australia, owners of the Uncle Tobys brand.

Nestle Australia says factors that were included in making the superfood claim included the oats being a natural source of fibre and energy, are minimally processed, rich in beta-glucan (which may help to lower cholesterol) and one 40 gram bowl contains 80 per cent of the recommended daily intake of whole grains.

So any company or person can decide to elevate a food to "super" status, then? Apparently. With the right media and marketing influence, anything can be vaulted into the realm of food saviour.

"Anyone is free to use the term superfood," says Tania Ferraretto, accredited practicing dietitian and spokeswoman for the Dieticians Association of Australia. "There's no definition for a superfood or criteria it has to meet. There's also no standards or monitoring. The term superfood doesn't mean very much at all."

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It might not mean much in an evidence-based practice sense, but the term sure carries clout in the marketing world.

Unqualified health-gurus love to bang on about superfoods to sell books, and Uncle Tobys has the term plastered over its boxes of oats. When Carman's Fine Foods replaced the word "seed" with "superfood" on its Blueberry Seed Nut Bars, sales doubled. It helped the company's owner, Carolyn Creswell, become the richest woman on the 2014 Business Review Weekly Young Rich list.

"Consumers want to feel like they're doing something good for themselves, so they buy into this idea of superfood," says Nitika Garg, an associate professor of marketing at the University of NSW Business School. "It is not very different from when the 'organic' craze started.

"People think, 'Oh, a superfood is going to be really good for me, it's helpful, it's going to give me a lot of antioxidants' or whatever it may be," she says. "Because there's still not a lot of products which have that [superfood] label, the term is working right now."     

Consumers don't need to base their grocery shopping around the superfood label, Ferraretto says, as the "non-super" alternatives are often equally healthy.

"Eat any green, leafy vegetable and you'll get the same nutritional benefits as kale," she says. "What concerns me mainly, is that these so-called superfoods are usually more expensive. If people choose to buy them, that's fine, because they are good for you, but they don't have to. Simply buy fruit and vegetables in season, as they're usually cheaper and better quality."    

Given the super-label isn't regulated under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, could any Joe Blow promote, say, bacon ice-cream as superfood?

"You'd have to justify a bit," Garg says, laughing. "Uncle Tobys, for example, are banking on the fact you already consider oats as a health food. Any justification of ice-cream as a superfood could be a bit shaky. It might work if it had an extract of acai berry."