Superfood – Myth or Reality?

Superfood? Like a superhero with superpowers that will save our health & protect our environment? Chia seeds, quinoa, maca, avocado, goji berries… Yes, these exotic foods may have interesting nutritional characteristics, such high content of omega-3, essential amino acids or antioxidants. But does this mean that they are indispensable? Or that their consumption will make up for an unhealthy diet?

Superfood
Mmm, I don’t think so…. A perfect food does not exist. Neither does miracle. Nothing will give us all the nutrients we need in one go. But what actually bother me the most with the so-called superfood is the consequences of their sudden popularity: rising prices for the local population (quinoa in Peru), increase of intensive monoculture & deforestation (avocado in Mexico), and so on. We must never forget that when an exotic food becomes trendy, it often has devastating consequences in the region in which it was originally consumed.

You can read more about the environmental impact of superfood, here and here (external links). In the following, I will mainly focus on the nutritional properties of three of the most popular superfoods: quinoa, avocado, and chia seeds.

Quinoa

Quinoa is a pseudocereal (edible seeds from a non-grass plants) grown in South America. It is considered as a superfood for being a gluten-free complete protein.

A complete protein contains all essential amino acids. Meat, fish and eggs are complete protein. However, most plant-based protein sources are incomplete as they are low in one or more essential amino acids. But this is a fake problem for us as by combining pulses and grains (such as lentils and rice) we will get all the amino acids our body needs. However, this is a real problem in the poorest regions of Peru and Bolivia where the local population can’t afford anymore to buy quinoa.

And yes, quinoa is “gluten-free”. But so are rice, buckwheat, beans, lentils, peas, etc. And if you are not allergic or intolerant, this is actually not even an issue.

The only good thing about quinoa being so popular is that you can now find some British-grown quinoa. It is not the same crop than the ones from South America but I can tell you that it tastes as good!

Avocado

Avocado are considered as being a superfood for their high content in monounsaturated fat which are good for our cardiovascular health. But avocado are not the only good source of monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA). For instance, 1 tbsp of olive oil contains about 10g of MUFA while half avocado (75g) contains 9g of MUFA. Nuts and seeds are also a good source of MUFA.

Avocado are delicious, I won’t discuss that. But I do not think that their so-called health properties justify their daily consumption. Avocado are everywhere nowadays. They are a star in instagram and pinterest and many health-conscious/vegan consumers use it as a staple food. Consequences of this boom? Water shortage in Chile, California and South Africa (about 2000L of water are needed to grow 1 kg of avocado according to the UNESCO-IHE) and deforestation in Mexico (where much of the production is controlled by drug cartels…). Plus the fact that they have to be shipped in cooled containers.

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds come from the plant Salvia hispanica and are grown in South America. Like for any self-respecting superfood, you can find plenty of articles on-line praising their health benefits and their incredible nutrient content. In particular, they are said to be high in protein, fibre, calcium, and omega-3.

So let’s have a look to their nutritional profile and let’s compare it to other food items. The data presented in the following tables come from the website Nutrition Data which mainly uses the USDA database. I chose to compare the nutritional data per serving size rather than per 100g. Indeed, we have to be realistic; you are much more likely to eat 100g of lentils than 100g of chia seeds! Two tablespoons (tbsp) of chia seeds is already a fairly good amount and it’s more or less the quantity you could add to your breakfast porridge.

Protein & Fibre in Chia Seeds
 Chia seedsLentils
Serving2 tbsp (28g)150g cooked
Protein (g)4.413.5
Fibre (g)10.611.9

150g of cooked lentils are the equivalent of about 60g raw which corresponds to an average portion. You will therefore get more protein and fibres with one serving of lentils than with one serving of chia seeds. And this is true for most pulses (more about pulses here).

Calcium in Chia Seeds
 Chia seedsKaleOrange
Serving2 tbsp (28g)100g raw1 medium (150g)
Calcium (mg)17713560
Phosphorus (mg)2655621

Chia seeds are indeed rich in calcium. But they are also high in phosphorus which can interfere with calcium absorption. Orange and kale are two examples of good plant-based sources of calcium. (I know, kale can be considered as a superfood, or at least as a trendy food. But as you can easily source it locally or even grow it in your garden, this is not an issue.)

Omaga-3 in Chia Seeds
 Chia seedsLinseedsWalnuts
Serving2 tbsp (28g)2 tbsp (28g)15 halves (50g)
Omega-3 (g)4.96.44.5

Chia seeds are a good source of plant-based omega-3, but so are walnuts and linseeds. Cold-pressed rapeseed oil is another good source of plant-based omega-3.

As you can see, chia seeds are indeed nutritionally interesting but you would get more of these nutrients with a balanced whole-food diet. Personally, I do not think that it’s worth the price!

Conclusion: superfood is a myth … and an ecological disaster!

Even though the so-called superfoods have interesting nutritional properties, they do not justify the price you will pay for it nor the consequences on the local population and ecosystem. We do not need superfood to be healthy. What our body needs to be healthy is variety and minimally processed foods. Eat healthy, yes. But above all, eat local and seasonal!

 

(Illustration designed by Freepik – I initially made a simple illustration that was saying “Superfood is like Valentine’s Day: a marketing strategy to make you buy stuff you don’t really need” but apparently it was not in good taste…)

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