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Gorgeous young woman with a shopping cart looking at some products on a supermarket aisle

Gorgeous young woman with a shopping cart looking at some products on a supermarket aisle

Unless you have been living under a rock, you would've been swamped with news about - super foods and functional foods. One may wonder which is which, so as to gobble them up!
As it turns out, you might be asking the wrong question. Public understanding needs to keep up with these private marketing techniques. So, let us take a look at what these two terms mean, their trends and what savvy consumers like us, need to know.

History

Around the same time the iPhone was thought of, apples went out of business. You and I admit, with KFC, McD's, coke, cheese, pizza and the lot, emphasising the importance of consuming a diet low in saturated fat, and high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and stroke, were inevitable.
Scientists also started identifying physiologically active components in foods from both plants and animals (aka phytochemicals and zoochemicals) at that time. These components could potentially reduce the risk of these chronic lifestyle diseases. These events, coupled with an ageing, quick-fix health-conscious population, changes in food regulations, numerous technological advances and a market ripe for the introduction of health-promoting products, coalesced in the 1990s to create this new trend of superfoods and functional foods.

Definition

There is no scientific or regulatory definition for a 'superfood'. It is rather just a health marketing term used to describe a food with a 'superior' nutritional composition, and it is a term one shouldn't happen to like. If the superfood helps us meet our requirements for a particular vitamin, a mineral or a fatty acid, that's great. But that is all there is to it.
You might find it interesting to know that functional food is a canopy under which nutraceuticals, health supplements, individual vitamins or minerals and plant/animal extracts, exist. When a food is labelled as any of these terms, they are not a marketing gimmick unlike a superfood. In fact, they are called so since a regulatory body (FSSAI) has scientifically established sets of nutrient compositions for each of the above terms.

Benefits of superfoods

There is no standard criteria or an approved list of superfoods. One could call the finger millet or ragi, a superfood because of its high fibre, calcium and phytochemical content. Superfoods worldwide are mostly international foods such as kale, chia seeds and quinoa. They have come into India at the cost of our rich variety of Indian foods. Lest we forget, people used to come to India in search for spices and food items, these superfoods have existed in India for centuries.
In India, the label "superfood" is being associated with the forgotten foods like millets, amaranth, basil seeds and the likes. For instance, chia is purely a product of the marketing efforts of the West. Compositionally, chia is similar to basil. Both are rich source of omega 3 fatty acid and dietary fibre. Both swell and become a gel in liquid. However, when it comes to price, chia seeds are almost double the cost of basil seeds. There are many such examples - groundnut oil and olive oil, gojiberry and amla, kale and cabbage or millets and oats.

Benefits of functional foods

Functional foods go beyond meeting basic nutritional needs in order to enhance or improve a physiological function or reduce the risk for a known disease. Functional foods are more holistic in nature or nutrient-dense, tailor-made for specific disorders. For example, papaya leaf extract capsules are prescribed to people suffering from dengue. Since one may not be able to eat kilos of the leaf all together, a high dose extract in a capsule is a convenient option.
Many of us have unrealistic expectations about functional foods thinking that we will be protected from chronic diseases and other ailments if we consume them. Although many functional foods may hold promise for public health, you should be cautious about one thing. A superfood is not an extract, powder or a single nutrient, but a whole food (unprocessed), so the chance of toxicity through a bioactive component present in the whole food is rare. However, a functional food not consumed as advised, could be toxic.
Analyse this. If you want to experience the benefits of garlic or neem, you would have to eat two to three whole garlic pods or an entire branch of a neem tree in order to attain the same concentration, the extract would have to offer as a functional food.

Conclusion

We know there is no magic potion for any disease or disease prevention. Somehow these 'Clark Kent' foods have been defined as panaceas. You will be shocked to know that as much as these bioactive nutraceuticals help particular parts or functions of the body, a higher dose or longer frequency tend to vitalise malignant cells in the body. High amount of turmeric is a carcinogen.
It truly is a challenge to shop for groceries today. The labelling of foods are hyped and we are lured to buy them. However, their effect is masked because of our inconsistent dietary habits throughout the day.
As consumers, we are seduced to think that if we have one superfood or a functional food mix, we need not eat mindfully otherwise. These terms tend to detract us from healthy eating, which is to choose from a wide range of natural foods.
So if you want to keep the super in superfoods or the functionality in functional foods alive, you must incorporate them in your daily healthy diet along with an active life.

(The author is a nutritionist, Pristine Organics)

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