Superfood is a marketing term used to describe foods with supposed health benefits.
The Macmillan dictionary defines it as a food that is considered to be beneficial to your health and that may even help some medical conditions.
Cancer Research UK say that "the term 'superfood' is really just a marketing tool, with little scientific basis to it". Another source defines superfood as "a non-medical term popularized in the media to refer to foods that can have health-promoting properties such as reducing one's risk of disease or improving any aspect of physical or emotional health. So-called superfoods may have an unusually high content of antioxidants, vitamins, or other nutrients."
Use of the term
The term is used frequently in a wide variety of contexts. It appears to first be referenced by Aaron Moss in the journal Nature Nutrition in the August edition of 1998, which stated, "Humans have many options when it comes to fueling their bodies, but the benefits of some options are so nutritious that they might be labeled as superfoods." In legal terms it has no standing however, although its use has been regulated in certain jurisdictions. For example, since 1 July 2007, the marketing of products as "superfoods" is prohibited in the European Union unless accompanied by a specific medical claim supported by credible scientific research.
In Europe, the term functional food, a concept originally conceived in Japan, rather than superfood is used to describe a food that beneficially affects one or more target functions in the body beyond adequate nutritional effects in a way that is relevant to either an improved state of health and well-being and/or reduction of risk of disease. It is consumed as part of a normal food pattern. It is not a pill, a capsule or any form of dietary supplement.
Many recent superfood lists contain common food choices whose nutritional value has been long recognized. Examples of these would be berries, nuts and seeds in general, dark green vegetables (such as kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts and broccoli), citrus fruits, fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, vegetables with bright, dark or intense colors (such as beets and their greens, and sweet potatoes), certain wild mushrooms, many legumes (peanuts, lentils, beans, raw cocoa), and whole grains as a group. Possibly the most studied superfood group, berries, remain under scientific evaluation and are not proven to have "superfood" health benefits.
Potential health effects
Cancer Research UK note that superfoods are often promoted as having an ability to prevent or cure diseases, including cancer; they caution, "you shouldn’t rely on so-called 'superfoods' to reduce the risk of cancer. They cannot substitute for a generally healthy and balanced diet".
Possible health benefits and effects of foods described as superfoods are often disputed or unsupported by scientific studies. For example, in one study, raw cocoa had positive effects on blood pressure and markers of heart health, while other research indicated less certainty about the possible effects of cocoa on cardiovascular disease.
The term superfood is often misused, with one expert saying it can be harmful when applied to foods which have drawbacks. For example, some seaweeds hailed as superfoods contain natural toxins which are thought by some to increase risk of cancer and liver damage.
Dietary supplements industry
Another noticeable consequence of the term superfood is that it is often used as a marketing strategy for companies. For example, green tea and its extracts have been studied over decades for their potential benefits, including possibly weight loss, as well as for polyphenol content that might supply other potential benefits. Many weight loss supplements contain green tea extracts as a key ingredient, due to a tea flavanol called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Currently, the evidence base supporting the assertion that consumption of green tea has health benefits is limited. More specifically concerning possible anti-cancer effects, a review of research and promotion about green tea produced a 2013 warning letter from the US Food and Drug Administration about false advertising and health claims concerning the effects of green tea consumption.
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- 'The term "superfoods" is at best meaningless and at worst harmful,' said Catherine Collins, chief dietitian at St George's Hospital in London. 'There are so many wrong ideas about superfoods that I don't know where best to begin to dismantle the whole concept.' Amelia Hill (2007-05-13). "Forget superfoods, you can't beat an apple a day". The Observer.
- "'Superfoods' and cancer". Cancer Research UK. Retrieved August 2013.
- "Superfood 'ban' comes into effect". BBC News. 2007-06-28.
- Berry fruits: compositional elements, biochemical activities, and the impact of their intake on human health, performance, and disease, Navindra P Seeram, J Agric Food Chem 03/2008; 56(3):627–9. doi:10.1021/jf071988k.
- Taubert, D; Berkels, R; Roesen, R; Klaus, W (2003). "Chocolate and blood pressure in elderly individuals with isolated systolic hypertension". JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 290 (8): 1029–30. doi:10.1001/jama.290.8.1029. PMID 12941673.
- Galleano, M; Oteiza, PI; Fraga, CG (2009). "Cocoa, chocolate, and cardiovascular disease". Journal of cardiovascular pharmacology 54 (6): 483–90. doi:10.1097/FJC.0b013e3181b76787. PMC 2797556. PMID 19701098.
- Amelia Hill (2007-05-13). "Forget superfoods, you can't beat an apple a day". The Observer.
- Tallon, M. (2008). Chocolate, green tea lead superfood revolution. Functional Ingredients, (76), 30.
- S. Ellinger, N. Müller, P. Stehle, & G. Ulrich-Merzenich (n.d). Consumption of green tea or green tea products: Is there an evidence for antioxidant effects from controlled interventional studies?. Phytomedicine, doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2011.06.006
- Schneeman BO (April 2013). "Letter Updating the Green Tea and Risk of Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer Health Claim April 17, 2012; RE: Health Claim Petition: Green Tea and Reduced Risk of Cancer Health Claim (Docket No. FDA-2004-Q-0427)". US Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved 20 November 2013.
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