Several words have become quite popular when describing healthy foods. There are natural foods, superfoods, functional foods, herbal medicines and nutraceuticals. They have no scientific, regulatory or legal definition. This should not be too surprising since even the term ‘food’ has many different definitions in different cultures. Some things that are thought to be foods in some cultures are considered sinful or even deadly poisons in others. The aim of this article is to show how a superfood cult has emerged that tries to increase sales, while misleading the public 1.
This cult was built through Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). “CDA describes the values, conventions and understandings that are made and reinforced by advertisements” 1. These values, conventions and understandings connect with larger “social processes and structures which give rise to the production of a text, and of social structures and processes within which individuals or groups as social historical subjects create meanings in their interactions with texts” 1, 2. In the process, CDA reveals “political, economic and sociocultural assumptions while also considering the power relationships that constitute and divide interested parties. The discursive framework of neoliberalism, gender bias and nutritionism are the most important structures that make up the discussions about superfoods” 1.
Neoliberalism “uses the language of commercialism, privatization and deregulation to encourage individualism, competition and consumption. Moreover, ‘superfood’ advertisements overwhelmingly target women. Nutritionism uses reductionist thinking to disconnect food from its production and eventual consumption, while minimizing the differences between whole and processed foods (such as ‘nutritious’ candy bars and beverages)” 1. As a result, ‘superfoods’ and nutraceuticals are advertised as having exceptional (or superior) nutritional benefits making them capable of preventing or even curing diseases. It uses gender bias to encourage girls and women to focus on improving their appearance or beauty 1, which is also a social construct, subject to the whims of fashion and with no scientific basis. The term ‘superfood’ can give many foods and beverages a ‘healthy-halo’ which influences consumer preferences 3.
This type of confusion has led some to call for stricter regulations and a food fraud policy to regulate false health claims of ‘superfoods’ like açaí 4. It is also important to remember that no food should be used as if it were a prescription drug that has been through extensive testing in clinical trials. Some foods (such as graviola and the North American pawpaw) can even cause Parkinson’s disease when overconsumed, even though they are often marketed as being able to cure cancer 5.
The term ‘superfood’ is used widely in marketing, on food packages and in the popular media. Its use was clarified in a recent Ph.D. thesis that used systems thinking to describe the history of ‘superfoods’ 6. That is, it used a ‘biography-of-things’ approach that used assemblage theory, actor network theory and circuits of culture theory. It was an interdisciplinary approach that included nutritional science, analysis of liberal trade agreements, traditional indigenous knowledge, food processing and transportation technologies. This approach led to an understanding of how “our cultural obsessions and anxieties feed into practices of science, and the sciences reciprocally nourish our cultural fixations” 6.
The ’healthy-halo’ is often supported by claims of high antioxidant capacity that were based on an idea that scientists now realize was wrong. In the past, it was thought that dietary antioxidants exerted their health effects by reacting directly with harmful reactive oxygen species (ROS) and free radicals, destroying them 7, 8 . That is, the metabolic processes that occur in the mitochondria of our cells produce ROS that can cause inflammation. Smoldering inflammation can lead to many diseases, including stroke, heart disease and many types of cancer. So, scientists developed methods to measure the ability of different foods to react with a standard ROS in test tubes or other material made of glass (in vitro). For several years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed the in vitro antioxidant activities of many foods, beverages and spices. Some foods, like kale (Brassica oleraceae) and açaí (Euterpe edulis) that have very high antioxidant activities in vitro were called superfoods by many people. Subsequently, an antioxidant paradox became apparent. Most dietary antioxidants have low bioavailabilities. They don’t reach the target organs at a high enough concentration to have a direct effect. Also, giving large doses of dietary antioxidant supplements to human subjects has seldom had any preventative or therapeutic effects. So, the USDA removed the list of antioxidant capacities from their website years ago.
However, when experiments were done on living systems (in vivo), we learned that most dietary antioxidants don’t work by reacting directly with ROS and free radicals. Instead, some of them activate our own endogenous antioxidant response elements (ARE), which destroy excess ROS, thus producing important health effects. So, many of the foods that were first identified as superfoods do activate our own AREs. However, this does not make them super in the way that superheroes can save people from looming disasters in movies and video games. One’s health depends on much more than just a single superfood. Genetics, epigenetics, lifestyle and one’s entire diet all interact to affect one’s health. No superfood can correct serious genetic, epigenetic, lifestyle or dietary problem by itself. Still, many healthy foods and juices can contribute significantly to one’s health – especially if they replace unhealthy foods that are popular in a typical fast food diet.
However, misleading advertising continues being used to sell other foods and dietary supplements as natural, functional, or an herbal medicine. The term ‘natural’ often implies that a food contains no artificial additives and that this automatically makes it healthier. Unfortunately, there are many natural compounds (like fructose) that are unhealthy when overconsumed. At the same time, there are many ‘natural’ additives (such as citric acid) that help prevent food from spoiling, thus making them healthy. There is similar confusion over the term ‘herb’. It has been defined as “a plant of which the stem does not become woody and persistent (as in a shrub or a tree) but remains more or less soft and succulent, and dies down to the ground (or entirely) after flowering; spec. applied to plants of which the leaves, or stem and leaves, are used for food or medicine, or in some way for their scent or flavor” 9. Based on this definition, many of the products sold as ‘herbal remedies’ or ‘herbal medicines’ are not really herbs. Still, much of the public considers many herbs to be as good as or even better than prescription drugs.
So, it is important that people become aware of the fact that the terms natural, superfoods, functional foods, herbal medicines and nutraceuticals are merely marketing tools. They have no medical, scientific, legal or regulatory definitions. Moreover, there is only one food that is truly exceptional and has nutritional benefits making it capable of preventing and even curing diseases. It is mother’s breast milk. That will be the subject of next month’s article.
1 Sikka T. Contemporary superfood cults. Nutritionism, neoliberalism and gender, in Food Cults: How Fads, Dogma, and Doctrine Influence Diet. Cargill K, ed., Rowan & Littlefield, 2017, pages 87-108.
2 Wodak R. Critical discourse analysis, in Qualitative Research Practice, Seale C, Gobo G, Gubrium JF, Silverman D, eds. SAGE, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2004.
3 McNally, A. Superfoods market set to double by 2011. NutraIngredients. com-Europe, 2007.
4 Curll J, Parker C, MacGregor C, Petersen A. Unlocking the energy of the Amazon? The need for a food fraud policy approach to the regulation of anti-ageing health claims on superfood labelling. Fed. Law Rev. Volume 44, 2016, pages 419-449.
5 Smith, RE. Fruits that can cause Parkinson’s Disease. The important differences between graviola, papaya and pawpaw, Jan., 2019.
6 Loyer J. The Social Lives of Superfoods. Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, Australia, 2016.
7 Huang, D., Ou, B., Prior, RL. The chemistry behind antioxidant capacity assays. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry., volume 53, 2005, pages 1841-1856.
8 Smith, RE. How Do Dietary Antioxidants Really Work?, July, 2018.
9 Aronson JK. Defining ‘nutraceuticals’: neither nutritious nor pharmaceutical. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, volume 83, 2017, pages 8-19.