Goji berries, freshly squeezed pomegranate, organic raw coconut oil… such exotic fruits have been widely tagged as “superfoods” that reportedly help you live longer – but, by golly, the hunt for them in the local supermarket drains the life out of you, doesn’t it? And then you have to make some kind of meal out of them.
Who doesn’t prefer a proper supper, such as fish pie with two veg, perhaps with some (whisper it) tinned peaches afterwards, or a square of darkest Green & Black’s chocolate? According to a new NHS report, “Miracle Foods and the Media”, many of us have been eating the right way all along, by sticking to tried-and-trusted foodstuffs and ignoring the obscure, often expensively imported, flim-flam forced upon us by enthusiastic marketeers.
So much for all those claims that their products improve cognitive skills, help lower cholesterol, and protect us against heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer.
The research, by NHS Choices (the health information website), reviewed four years’ worth of studies in the national media that made various claims about foods – from nutrient-rich açaí berries plucked from Brazil’s Amazon region, to umeboshi, the salty pickled plums eaten in Japan that have been described as “working miracles on the digestive system”. What they found was that the science behind the claims was often less than thorough.
Now, for the first time, the NHS has endorsed what it considers to be authentic superfoods. The good news is that all are commonly available on your weekly supermarket shop, and in many cases you’re probably already buying them.
What are these “supermarket superfoods”? Essentially, they are those which make up the so-called Mediterranean diet: oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and kippers; green vegetables, especially broccoli and spinach (Savoy cabbage is good, too); fresh fruit (notably apples, oranges, peaches and melons); and olive oil, for cooking, drizzling, dipping and dressing.
Blueberries, a famed “superfood”, may be high in antioxidants – but so too are grapes. And a tablespoon of steamed spinach contains more vitamin C and folic acid than a shot of wheatgrass, the fabled (and disgustingly bitter) health-food juice.
How has the NHS selected its supermarket superfoods as the ones to eat? By relying only on scientifically verified, systematic research: it cites a review published in the British Medical Journal that argues that a Mediterranean diet increases the chance of living to a healthy old age; a World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) review that found eating greens reduces cancer risk; and concurring studies that oily fish may reduce age-related macular degeneration (a common eye disorder that limits vision). It might sound like familiar advice – but it’s the first time our National Health Service has come out in favour of certain foodstuffs – even if it doesn’t actually like the tag “superfoods”.
The NHS Choices research concludes: “It’s best not to concentrate on any one food in the hope it will work miracles.” It also highlights some bad news: that drinking alcohol increases cancer risk (based on a WCRF review); and that, while chocolate in moderation may lower blood pressure (according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Archives of Internal Medicine and Nature), if eaten to excess, it increases the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
For those who swear by the supposed life-giving properties of expensive green tea, the NHS remains on the fence, saying that taken in “moderate amounts” it is merely “safe”. If you’re looking for an antioxidant boost, it seems you might as well stick to a cup of PG Tips.
Independent dietician Ursula Arens, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA), agrees: “The basic healthy eating message – more fruit, veg and fibre, less saturated fat, sugar and salt, plus iron-rich foods for women before the menopause, and protein for everyone – is a simple one.”
While applauding the NHS for pronouncing on the benefit of certain foodstuffs, she thinks the new report is too prescriptive, missing out other “supermarket superfoods” that she says are worth including in our diets.
“For me, there are plenty of other superfoods available on supermarket shelves that are uniquely high in hard-to-get nutrients. On [the NHS] to-eat list, they should also have included Brazil nuts, for selenium; anchovies and herrings for long-chain omega-3 and iodine; carrots for beta-carotene; oysters for zinc; and liver for vitamin A and iron.”
Arens hopes the NHS’s superfoods review will achieve its aim of promoting healthier eating rather than muddying the waters yet further. “If by telling people pomegranate juice is particularly super for their hearts, we re-engage and interest consumers, there isn’t any harm. The problem would occur if they felt that was all they had to do. I have great sympathy for the average person who gives up and says they’ll eat what they want.”
Dr Alex Richardson, senior research fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, University of Oxford, and founder director of Food and Behaviour Research, a charity researching links between nutrition and human behaviour, goes further. She is concerned that the methodology used by NHS Choices is too limited and based on trials that test only a narrow list of nutritional benefits. For example, the report states that there is “no evidence” that oily fish boosts brain power.
“No evidence?” says Dr Richardson. “It is an absolute fact that the omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish are essential to the structure and function of the brain, from when it is first formed in the womb until we die in old age. It is indisputable.
“For obvious reasons, we cannot do randomised controlled trials involving humans across their entire lifespan in order to ‘prove’ that a good omega-3 intake in early life will protect you from dementia in old age. The review upon which the NHS’s findings is based focuses only on cognitive impairment or dementia, and on the very few, short-term trials that have been published to date in this one specific area. But an absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence.”
It is the endless stream of less-than-scientific, poor quality research that has driven the NHS to make its stand on superfoods. False claims and false profits are being made at the expense of consumers. The NHS report cites one study that claimed chocolate lowered stress levels – but the trial involved just 30 people, was only followed up for 14 days, and was funded by a large chocolate manufacturer.
It would be interesting to know which superfood claim broke the NHS’s back. But, for the consumer, the truth appears to be largely out. Don’t fall for glamorous ingredients found only in expensive delis and health food stores in your hunt for long life. Just pop down to the supermarket.