Our Relationships With The Foods That Fuel Us Wax And Wane Over The Generations. Everything From Margarine To White Pasta And Orange Juice To Chocolate Has Ridden A Rollercoaster Of Popularity As We Assess And Reassess Their Value In Our Diets. But The Rise Of Superfoods Has Thrown Up Some Dramatic Storylines.
First came the research: a slew of trials isolating the cell-regenerating powers of natural ingredients – coffee beans, green tea, edible seaweeds and more – that hinted that natural foods could give powerful pharmaceuticals a run for their money under lab condition. Next came the headlines: the cancerbusting, age-defying powers that a high antioxidant content might give certain fruit or veg.
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A generation of food writers and bloggers build their name on the promise that foods could heal, even medicate, if we could just work the latest discovery into our daily routines. Supercharge your breakfast with blueberries, we were told. Power up your salads with the wondrous properties of South American quinoa. Add a dash of turmeric to fend off colds; slash your cancer risk with regular sips of green tea The accompanying gold rush has seen obscure ingredients become everyday items, and old favourites such as kale get a spangly new makeover.
But then, in time-honoured fashion, there has of course been a backlash. Food campaigners encourage us to question an unhealthy obsession with single ingredients and take a second look at the science. Are lab trials on mice really applicable to us and our diets? Should results gained with isolated plant extracts – often in concentrations many time stronger than could be possibly achieved through normal consumption – really influence the foods we put in our shopping baskets, and bodies? Getting to the truth “Actually the term ‘superfood’ is almost defunct, because all food is ‘super’”, suggests registered dietitian Aisling Pigott. “All food provides some nutritional value, whether that’s energies or vitamins or minerals. The idea that one fruit is better than another because it has a different contribution of vitamins and minerals doesn’t really make any sense. If you ate just açaí berries you wouldn’t see a benefit. It’s all about where foods fit into a healthy balanced diet.”
Dr Simon Poole, a GP and author on nutrition suggests that beyond these isolated examples a shift in perspective is needed. While the search for a quick fix to our nutritional worries has seen attention zero in on single ingredients and even individual nutrients in isolation, he believes we should ‘zoom out’ to look at the bigger picture. “There is no single ingredient in our diet that will make all the difference to our health; it’s about the combination of foods,” he says. “The Mediterranean diet – which is supported by a vast body of scientific evidence – is fundamentally based on a combination of ingredients, any one of which could be described as a superfood. But there’s no single element that you could eat more of to give you everything that you want. It’s about the combination.”
Truth or trend? A hunger for exotic ingredients nothing new. Whether you look at the Tudor-era fashion for spices or the Victorian passion for pineapples, serving up unfamiliar and expensive foods has always been fashionable. Attributing a nutritional benefit is the icing on the cake in these our health-conscious times. Fortunately the Food Standards Agency (FSA) tightly regulates food claims; 10 years ago the FSA enacted EU legislation to regulate the use of the term ‘superfood’ and ensure producers back up health claims. On a cheerier note, the fashion for superfoods has encouraged many of us to eat more experimentally and diversify our diet with grains, berries, spices and condiments that we might otherwise have missed. “And that is a positive, absolutely,” says Aisling. “Just because there’s no extra benefit from having goji berries or pomegranate over whatever’s in season, doesn’t mean that it’s not a good thing that we’re exploring new food and tastes and textures and varying things up. That’s certainly positive.
Dr Poole agrees that our heightened interest in nutrition has brought some benefits. “I think it’d be a mistake to dismiss the idea of superfoods entirely,” he says. “I think we should recognise that some foods are particularly powerful in terms of their nutritional content. There is a spectrum of nutritional value. For example either diet or sugared soda drinks aren’t very helpful at all, and other foods will score much higher. Extra virgin olive oil is allowed to carry a health claim from the European Food Safety Authority based on the amount of polyphenols it contains. Nuts, as a single ingredient are probably very helpful as well, they contain good fats and minerals like zinc and selenium.
Colourful veg are rich sources of antioxidants and polyphenols.” Experiment and enjoy! So the good news is that a healthy shopping basket needn’t contain obscure and expensive ingredients. A taste of the exotic is great to add variety, but fresher, local foods will always be the foundation of a healthy diet. “We know that the further things travel and the longer it takes for a fresh ingredient to get from the tree to your table, the bigger the impact on nutrient content,” says Aisling. “So antioxidants will deplete more the further these foods have to travel. I would argue that the healthiest range of fruit and veg are those that are local and in season. So eating with the seasons is better than eating what’s in fashion.” And enjoying dishes that celebrate a marriage of flavours is good for body and soul. “Combinations will often result in foods which are richer in nutrients than the sum of their parts,” says Dr Poole. “If you mix veg rich in polyphenols with extra virgin oil you’ll get a greater level of nutrients in the diet that are readily absorbed. Eating right is about good individual ingredients combined together in a healthy diet.” Delicious!