Superfood is a marketing term for food with supposed health benefits. The term is not commonly used by experts, dietitians and nutrition scientists, many of whom dispute that particular foods have the health benefits often claimed by their advocates.
Definition and use of the term
The Macmillan Dictionary defines "superfood" as "a food that is considered to be very good for your health and that may even help some medical conditions". The Oxford Dictionary definition states a superfood is “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being".
The European Food Information Council stated that it was impractical for consumers to have a diet based only on presumed superfoods when nutrients are provided readily from a diet using diverse foods, especially including fruits and vegetables.
As of 2007, the marketing of products as "superfoods" is prohibited in the European Union unless accompanied by a specific authorized health claim supported by credible scientific research. The ruling was issued to guide marketing by manufacturers to assure proof of scientific evidence for why a particular food would be labeled as healthy or classified as a superfood.
Berries remain only under preliminary research and are not yet certain of providing health benefits. Specifically, blueberries, as a popular superfood example, are not especially nutrient-dense (considered to be a superfood characteristic), having moderate content of only three essential nutrients: vitamin C (an antioxidant), vitamin K and manganese. Blueberries are commonly branded as having a high dose of antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins for which antioxidant properties have been demonstrated only in vitro. However, this antioxidant effect is not conserved after anthocyanin-rich plant foods are consumed. As interpreted by the Linus Pauling Institute and European Food Safety Authority, dietary anthocyanins and other flavonoids have little or no direct antioxidant food value following digestion.
Foods such as carrots, spinach, and kale, by contrast, contain relatively high content of nutrients, and so may confer nutritional benefits beyond those of other foods moderate in nutrient content, such as berries.
Superfruit is a marketing term first used in the food and beverage industry in 2004. Superfruit has no official definition in major consumer markets, e.g., Europe or the United States by regulatory authorities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture. The designation of a fruit as a superfruit is entirely up to the product manufacturer, as the term is primarily a marketing tool used to create consumer demand.
Keys to marketing a successful superfruit product include the native fruit qualities, scientific evidence suggesting a potential health benefit, marketing, protection of intellectual property and developing a strategy to attract consumers. Combined in the right way, these elements may allow a fruit to achieve "critical mass" as a superfruit.
To date, superfruits have been developed mainly as juices, but began in 2007 to appear as single-piece products or as ingredients for functional foods, confectioneries and cosmetics. Current industry development includes applications for creating novel consumer products, such as energy drinks, dietary supplements, and flavors with nutrient qualities, e.g. fortified water, popcorn or snack chips.
Although used in new food and beverage products, superfruits remain undefined by scientific criteria that would allow consumers to objectively assess nutrient value and potential for furnishing health benefits. Consequently, the term superfruit is used liberally to include fruits having sparse scientific evidence for being "super" other than being relatively unknown to common consumers.
The superfruit category is a relatively new marketing approach for promoting common or rare fruits used as raw materials and ingredients for the global industries of functional foods, beverages and nutraceuticals. The fruits may have nutritional significance due to their nutrient content, antioxidant value, anticipated health benefits and commercial significance associated with novelty of taste, color, number of food or beverage product formats or potential to stimulate future products with innovative packaging and labeling.
In 2007, the superfoods category was forecast to become a billion dollar global industry by 2011, with several thousand new superfruit products expected to enter the marketplace. According to Datamonitor, superfruit product launches grew at a rate of 67% over 2007–2008, but underwent significant category erosion beginning in 2011 when introductions of food and non-food products featuring pomegranate, açaí or goji declined by 56% for the period 2011–2012 versus 2009–2010.
Origin and background
More than a dozen industry publications on functional foods and beverages have referred to various exotic or antioxidant species as superfruits with estimates for some 10,000 new product introductions in 2007–2008.
Relatively rare fruits originating from Oceania (noni), China (goji, seabuckthorn), Southeast Asia (mangosteen) or tropical South America (açaí) unknown to American consumers were among the first wave of superfruits successfully used in product manufacturing from 2005 to 2010, but their popularity declined through 2013, being replaced in part by new entries from southern Africa (baobab) and northern Europe (forest berries). Consumer interest in new products using pomegranate remained consistent through 2013.
However, definition of a superfruit remains obscure with no scientific standards or commercial criteria accepted uniformly in the industry.
Mainstream consumers initially seemed to accept juices of fruits that would not be popular in fresh form, such as noni and pomegranate – two of the largest selling juices. Tahitian Noni began selling noni juice in 1996 and claimed billions of dollars in sales during their first 10 years of operation. Earlier reports showed pomegranate-based products grew nearly 400% over 2005–2007 from new launches, a gain exceeding all the previous 6 years. Similarly, XanGo, a multiple-fruit juice containing mangosteen juice, grew from $40 million in sales in 2002 to $200 million in 2005.
One strategy used by manufacturers has been to employ superfruits to enhance the flavor of food products, attempting to mask tastes or provide impressions of novelty and health. Five thousand new products were introduced in 2005 on berries alone, while the superfruit category was one of the top 10 global trends in consumer products in 2008. By 2013, however, innovation in superfruit products appeared to be generally declining, with fewer new introductions to the category. Over the years 2011 to 2015, however, the number of food or beverage products containing the words, "superfood", "superfruit" or "supergrain", had doubled.
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', has been criticized as only a marketing device. According to Catherine Collins, chief dietitian at St George's Hospital in London, usage of the term can actually be harmful when applied to foods which have drawbacks. Collins has stated that "[t]he term 'superfoods' is at best meaningless and at worst harmful... There are so many wrong ideas about superfoods that I don't know where best to begin to dismantle the whole concept."
The Dutch food safety organization Voedingscentrum presented some health claims that marketers use in selling many so-called superfoods such as goji berry, hempseed, chia seeds, and wheatgrass and notes that such claims are not scientifically proven. The organisation warns that people who go to extremes in their conviction and consume large quantities of specific superfoods end up with an "impaired, one-sided diet".
Historically, food fads come and go; for example, in the early 1900s, bananas may have been named the first superfood, as they were praised to be "sealed by nature in practically germ-proof packages" by the Journal of the American Medical Association and touted as a treatment for celiac disease. Also, concerning possible anti-cancer effects of green tea, a review of research and promotion produced a 2013 warning letter from the US Food and Drug Administration about false advertising and health claims.
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