3 Reasons Why Superfoods Can Be Dangerous
Superfoods are supposed to offer profound nutritional benefits, and they are marketed as such.
The problem is that it’s not always clear whether the label is deserved because there’s no accepted standard for what makes one food “super” and another merely healthy.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether this focus on individual foods is worth pursuing in the first place. The fact is, broader dietary patterns are much more useful for predicting health outcomes than the consumption of any one food, no matter how healthy it is.
Still, superfoods are mega trendy. Google news search trends show that there was a huge spike in searches for superfoods starting mid-2016, and the number of web searches have generally been much higher throughout the past ten years than the six years before that. “Super foods” returns more than a billion Google search results, many of which are focused on the exact same questions:
- What is a superfood?
- How many superfoods are there?
- How do we obtain superfoods?
- Which are the best superfoods for x illness (e.g., diabetes), or y life condition (e.g., expectant mothers)?
Much rarer are results questioning the premise of this focus on superfoods; the effectiveness of this focus on superfoods; and the potential dangers of this focus on superfoods.
And that’s worrying. Because even though many of the foods touted as “super” are indeed healthy, our celebration of their miraculous properties often goes overboard, and there are negative side effects of these attitudes.
Even though many of the foods touted as ‘super’ are indeed healthy, our celebration of their miraculous properties often goes overboard, and there are negative side effects of these attitudes.
For one thing, the popularity of this concept illustrates how marketing has come to dominate over nutrition. Is that really worth preserving and encouraging? Do we really want to approach something so critical as our health through such marketing gimmicks?
Can we not encourage healthy behavior another way?
But maybe that critique seems a little abstract and idealistic. Here are three specific reasons why a focus on “superfoods” is dangerous.
1. It creates endless opportunities to mislead the public about the healthfulness of certain foods
Most published articles about superfoods are formatted as lists of superfoods. In these, each item is often accompanied by very little text. Maybe a short paragraph, but often even less.
These articles are easy to read and easy to beautify with colorful, mouthwatering photos. Unfortunately, because they do not offer the adequate space to cover any food item in depth, they’re also highly susceptible to misleading information.
Let’s look at an example. A couple years ago, a Healthline article listed eggs as a superfood and described them more generally as, “one of the healthiest foods.”
At a glance, the claim that eggs are a superfood seems hard to dispute. Here’s the case they make:
Whole eggs are rich in many nutrients … [are] loaded with high-quality protein … contain potent antioxidants … known to protect vision and eye health … [and] despite fears surrounding egg consumption and high cholesterol, research indicates no measurable increase in heart disease or diabetes risk from eating up to 6–12 eggs per week … more research is needed to draw a definite conclusion [emphasis added].
There are many issues here to unpack.
First, without directly comparing eggs to any other food or combination of foods, the claim of nutrient richness says very little. I don’t mean to suggest that eggs are not nutrient dense, only that greater context is required. Nutrient density alone says very little. Many “nutrient-dense” foods also have less favorable qualities, such as high levels of cholesterol, fat, and animal protein. Shouldn’t that figure into our calculation of whether a food is super or not?
Second, the claim that eggs are, “loaded with high-quality protein,” is provided with even less context. The article says nothing about how or why the protein of eggs should be regarded as higher quality than the protein provided by other foods. It says nothing about the history of measuring protein “quality,” which has long been biased toward animal protein without convincing justification. And how could it elaborate on these subjects? Remember, this is just one item in a list of 16 superfoods; how much text can really be devoted to each item?
Third, and perhaps most misleadingly, is the mention of eggs antioxidant content, which implies that eggs are uniquely good for eye health. Never mind that many foods provide far more of these antioxidants than eggs, and that neither of the references in the Healthline article mention eggs as especially good sources of these antioxidants.
If it’s potent antioxidants that you’re after, eggs don’t deserve a place at the table. Dark leafy green vegetables in particular are great sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, providing many orders of magnitude more of these antioxidants than eggs. Even non-leafy green vegetables provide much greater quantities of these antioxidants than eggs. The following chart includes only a couple of leafy greens—there are many more containing large quantities of lutein and zeaxanthin—but play around with the MyFoodData database for even a short while and you can see how eggs stack up.
Source: MyFoodData; Reproduced from USDA Food Data Central
https://www.myfooddata.com (Accessed on 06 January 2021)
Fourth and finally, the article addresses one of the most common concerns associated with egg consumption—its high cholesterol content—and “debunks” those concerns by providing two “trusted sources,” both of which disclose authors’ prior connections to the animal foods industry. This isn’t to say these researchers shouldn’t be taken seriously, but given that none of the opposing research on the potential negative effects of egg consumption was discussed in any depth whatsoever, the Healthline article’s presentation of the research hardly comes across as balanced or deep enough.
Granted, all of these arguments for why eggs should be considered superfoods could be presented in any article format, and they often are. But the format of superfood lists, which emphasize brevity and style over substance and depth, make them especially susceptible.
In other words, it’s not that this information wouldn’t exist otherwise, but that the way we deliver information about superfoods encourages even more manipulation and cherry picking.
2. It doesn’t do enough to provoke broad dietary change, and might even encourage complacency by giving consumers a false sense of security
Even in the case of legitimately healthful foods for which there is not a great deal of conflicting evidence—kale, for instance, is clearly a lot less controversial as a “health food” than eggs—emphasis on superfoods still has negative effects. Namely, by focusing on individual foods, we are more inclined to look for “magic bullets” rather than sweeping change.
And in the case of individuals who don’t enjoy the commonly-marketed “superfoods,” our outsized emphasis on them might also discourage lasting change. People who don’t like kale shouldn’t feel pressured to eat it anyway just because it’s trendy. Bok choy might not top as many lists of superfoods, but that’s okay.
In other words, we should lean toward the healthy foods that we enjoy most, and enjoy their variety, not demand perfectionism based on the popularity of single food items.
Besides, most Americans’ diets require a far more substantial change than the introduction of a few foods. Our outsized focus on those foods doesn’t encourage that substantial change, and might give people a false sense of security (i.e., I got my daily dose of turmeric and blueberries—covered my bases!)
Of course, if we enjoy turmeric and blueberries and want to integrate them in the context of a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet, then that’s great. But we should be wary of thinking about them as supplements.
3. It contributes to our society’s distorted perception of how much it costs to be healthy
There’s a widely held misconception that healthy eating is difficult to achieve on the average person’s budget. It is a myth, and it ignores several key costs associated with food—especially the cost of disease and the cheapness of healthy staples (foods like sweet potatoes, legumes, whole grains).
Once again, our focus on superfoods often makes this condition worse.
That’s because many of the foods labeled as “super” are quite expensive, and sometimes difficult to find. That doesn’t mean they aren’t healthy, but as long as we want the practice of health to be widely accessible to everybody, we should avoid placing too much emphasis on things like cordyceps mushrooms, maqui berries, and maca powder.
You might personally decide to enjoy the unique health benefits of these foods, and that’s fair enough. Just remember that the extraordinary effects of broad dietary change that incorporates a wide range of affordable foods are much more impressive.
On a societal, communal, or even familial level, the stakes are even higher. It’s much harder to budget for foods like acai berry powder than for foods like purple cabbage. We should be encouraging not only sweeping change of the foods we eat, but also sweeping change of how “normal” people view the cost of health.
Too often, superfoods encourage the opposite perspective.
They epitomize a consumer-producer relationship that is off-limits to most people, such that, “their consumption is seen as the expression of the endeavor to achieve a healthy, wealthy and long life, and thus social distinction.” In other words, marketers are not only selling “health,” but also a feeling of superiority, elitism.
Well-meaning consumers can’t be blamed for that. Who wouldn’t want to eat the healthiest food available? Even if only just for extra protection and peace of mind. Nevertheless, these attitudes have secondary effects, and they can be damaging to how we view health, and especially to less-prosperous consumers.
But wait — aren’t there benefits?
You might wonder: if more people are eating kale and goji berries as a result of the thousands of articles citing kale and goji berries as “superfoods,” then isn’t that enough of a benefit to outweigh the concerns listed above?
Maybe, but let’s not forget—there are many other ways to encourage the consumption of kale and goji berries, and many of them are free of the baggage listed above. For instance, we could simply share the body of evidence supporting a WFPB diet, which encourages the consumption of diverse plant foods without getting caught up on any individual food item. We could also better train health professionals in nutrition. We could advocate for numerous changes that would limit the influence of industry over national food policy.
These might not be the sexiest, most clickable, or most profitable suggestions. But is that so bad? We’ve given marketing and profit a turn at dominance. We’ve given things like sexy, clickable superfoods a whole lot of attention. Maybe it’s high time we considered responsible alternatives.
This article is part of a new series on The Future of Nutrition: An Insider’s Look at the Science, Why We Keep Getting It Wrong, and How to Start Getting It Right by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, (with Nelson Disla) released December 2020. We will preview selected topics and themes central to the book, as well as taking a deeper dive into subjects that did not make it into the book.
Read more articles in the “Future of Nutrition” series from Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Nelson Disla:
- Google Trends. Superfoods. Online access: January 6, 2021.
- Hill, A. 16 superfoods that are worthy of the title. Healthline (2018). https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/true-superfoods
- Campbell, T. C. The cult of animal protein. The Future of Nutrition: An Insider’s Look at the Science, Why We Keep Getting it Wrong, and How to Start Getting it Right (2020).
- Delcourt C., Carriere I., Delage M., Barberger-Gateau P., Schalch W.; POLA Study Group. Plasma lutein and zeaxanthin and other carotenoids as modifiable risk factors for age-related maculopathy and cataract: the POLA study. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci 47(6) 2329–35 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1167/iovs.05-1235
- Gale C. R., Hall N. F., Phillips D. I., Martyn C. N. Lutein and zeaxanthin status and risk of age-related macular degeneration. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 44(6) 2461–5 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1167/iovs.02-0929
- MyFoodData. Online access: January 6, 2021. https://www.myfooddata.com
- Richard, C., Cristall, L., Fleming, E., Lewis, E. D., Ricupero, M., Jacobs, R. L., Field, C. J. Impact of egg consumption on cardiovascular risk factors in individuals with type 2 diabetes and at risk for developing diabetes: a systematic review of randomized nutritional intervention studies. Canadian Journal of Diabetes 41(4)2 453–463 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcjd.2016.12.002
- Blesso, C. N., Fernandez, M. L. Dietary cholesterol, serum lipids, and heart disease: are eggs working for or against you? Nutrients 10(4) 426 (2018). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10040426
- MacGregor, C., Petersen, A., Parker, C. Promoting a healthier, younger, you: the media marketing of anti-ageing superfoods. Journal of Consumer Culture (2018) https://doi.org/10.1177/1469540518773825
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