Why ‘superfood’ is a super fad  

Medical and nutrition experts are wary of the label, and say it comes from marketing and not science

A free and relaxed perspective is crucial, shunning diet-oriented obsessions and adopting a relatively intuitive approach.

There were times when milk, yogurt, spinach and fish were considered superfoods. There were those times too in history when certain affluent populations considered mice a delicacy. Some still make do with mice, a source of protein in penury.

Hopping in and out of our digital screens, we come across stories on what to eat and how to eat it. We are now exploring food more than ever, exposing ourselves to food cultures of the wider world.

Certain trends manifest for short periods. The idea of superfoods is one.

According to Alex Berezow of the not-for-profit American Council on Science and Health, the term ‘superfoods’ is a result of our cultural obsession with quick fixes. A product of marketing that takes advantage of widespread scientific illiteracy.

An irresponsible piece of dietary advice on superfoods to the chronically ill can adversely affect recovery. “Superfoods often claim to be anti-cancer, anti-diabetic and such with no scientific proof,” says Dr Sanjiv, St John’s Hospital.

A case in point is a young New York-based food blogger and influencer falling sick, obsessed with food that is perfect and pure. She continued consuming what she considered perfect and pure. Her skin even took a certain hue when she ate too many sweet potatoes. The condition is called orthorexia.

A free and relaxed perspective is crucial to food, and not diet obsessions.

In India, where malnutrition is high, ensuring food security is more important than a rally for ‘superfoods’, pushing up prices. Take the jackfruit: its price has spiked because of such a rally.

Panic about the state of the environment would further this obsession with pure and perfect food, unless we address environmental pollution on a war footing.

“Pesticides and indiscriminate disposal of waste lead to the contamination of land and water, poisoning vegetables, fish and milk with heavy metals. Our studies have shown deliberate injecting of chemicals in fruits for colour and early ripening,” says Prof T V Ramachandra of the Indian Institute of Science.

Meanwhile, ‘superfoods’ will thrive as long as there are viral videos, celebrity endorsers and moneyed enthusiasts. The classification, however, is unwarranted as superfoods are increasingly thought of as ideal even at a premium. “There is a certain amount of truth in it. A part of our natural diet, they are of great nutritional value. That said, marketing plays a role,” says celebrity trainer Swetha Subbiah.

To understand how shallow the concept is, one may need to understand one’s own traditional cuisine that has undergone tremendous natural selection, nutrition considered.

“There are no superfoods. It is a fad. Traditional Indian diet is all inclusive. Superfoods aren’t offering anything new. Flexitarian, vegan or vegetarian, it’s a personal choice,” says dietician Sheela Krishnaswamy.

Superfoods must eventually lead us back to sources of natural nutrition, seasonal and free of genetic tweaks. Just like how the Japanese are positively exploiting nature for sustenance.

“At times we eat at farmers’ homes. The food is often seasonal, not driven by any business or market. City-dwellers go by advertisements while rural folk trust traditional knowledge. Fortunately, rural India still exists and constitutes 60 per cent of the population,” says Ramachandra.

Meat is a cheap source of protein for the underprivileged majority, indeed a real superfood. Politicising meat-eating for political gain is absurd.

“How do you convince the politician? It is unfortunate that food habits are politicised when we have hungry mouths to feed. Dietary diversity through a robust supply chain involving all stakeholders and promoting seasonal and indigenous crops are what we must strive for,” Sheela explains.

Most claims about superfoods are appalling. “Superfood is a marketing term from the early 2000s, which has reappeared now. The term is unknown to the scientific community, especially to doctors. There is little evidence. Usually exotic expensive foods are marketed using this term. Regulators in the UK and Europe have prohibited the term in the absence of evidence,” Dr Sanjiv points out.

As the digitally aware revel in the ‘benefits’ of superfoods, the fad has popularised previously ignored indigenous crops.

“Imminent water scarcity might drive farmers to opt for crops like millet and pulses, which require less water. The quest for a balanced diet may push the markets to an alternative path,” observes Ramachandra.

However, for farmers in these parts, superfood or not, the fad is a blessing.

“Nobody cared for millets a while ago. Now, there’s good demand and supply, which is a good thing,” says Sheela. Solely viewing nutrition as something to be sold for a premium can be dangerous too, depriving rural folk of their inherent right over indigenous seed varieties.

“Superfoods are well described as a habit prevalent in the higher socioeconomic milieu leading to social inequities,” warns Dr Sanjiv.

‘Superfoods’ gaining ground

Millet

Gooseberry

Freshly-ground turmeric

Amaranth

Fermented foods

Jackfruit

Moringa leaves

Breadfruit

Coconut oil

Beets

And of course, insects!

 

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