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PacificEdge | December 13, 2018

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Superfoods — more marketing hype that nutrition

Superfoods — more marketing hype that nutrition
Russ Grayson

I DROPPED INTO Moloney’s grocery in Coogee for a few things yesterday and there I discovered a box of… wait for it… superfood!

Yes, there it was. In a couple different versions. I knew it was superfood because the box said so, right there in big, bold, dense black type in Stencil or a similar font. So I picked up the box, turned it over and… disappointment. Not some newly-discovered food from some South American peasant’s field but plain old chia, chickpea, sorghum and millet with a dash of ‘bush honey’ and lemon myrtle.

These are fine, nutritious grains but they are not ‘superfoods’. Why not? Because the term has no commonly-accepted definition, as the Wikipedia entry on superfoods explains:

“The superfood term is not in common use by dietitians and nutrition scientists, many of whom dispute that particular foods have the health benefits often claimed by advocates of particular superfoods.”

Another definition of ‘superfood’ said it is a marketing term used to describe foods with supposed health benefits.

A term from marketing planet

It turns out that ‘superfood’ is a marketing rather than a precise, scientific, technical term with a universally-accepted meaning. Yes, just another way to sell you something old dressed up as something new through the use of a new catchword and new packaging.

Like the overused and now-meaningless term ‘natural’ applied to foods and other products, ‘superfoods’ is a play on people’s honest and commendable search for safe, nutritional foods as well as on their gullibility. Gullibility, though, is a prime tool used by the advertising and marketing industries.

Hype, not product in question

Now, I have no criticism of the grain foods in that box. Yes, I bought it. Not because it was a superfood but because I wanted some grains to add to my morning muesli. With its blend of ‘bush’ honey (a lot of honeys qualify as that, especially where bee hives are placed near bushland, so that could well be an honest if very general use of the word) and lemon myrtle, an Australian bush food, the product tasted fine.

It is made by Freedom Foods down in the Riverina (Australian owned and managed according to the company’s website), from Australian and imported ingredients. Labelling suggests there is a lot of Australian content but as for the imported, well, where it comes from is anyone’s guess as it isn’t stipulated. It claims to be free on GM ingredients if you are concerned about that.

It was good to find the product of an Australian company even if part of it is of unknown origin. We need companies that use as many Australian ingredients as possible if Australia is to have a farming future and not rely on foreign-owned food imports.


Why skepticism pays

Skeptics, most of us know, are people who have the audacity to ask for the evidence behind claims. They are open to the possibility that some claim might be true but they have very acute BS antennas that ring alarm bells when something smelly fishy or, in the case we are looking at, grainy. I think the following statement from a US skeptics’ organisation sums up the situation of superfoods accurately:

“In case you missed it, a nice article in Mother Jones debunking the idea that exotic edibles like quinoa, acai berries and Chia seeds are ‘superfoods’ of extraordinarily high nutritional value.

“They aren’t worthless, but certainly not worth the premium prices charged for them, compared to other foods that are readily available — and that don’t have the social costs generated by taking staple foods away from villagers who can no longer afford their traditional foods”

Depriving villagers in lesser developed countries of their staple foods? Yes, that’s what happened with quinoa. Rising demand for the quinoa ‘superfood’ in affluent countries forced up the price locally. Simple supply and demand economics. That’s the social cost of superfoods.

While we are on quinoa, let’s note here that if you live in Australia you can enjoy your non-superfood (see quote above) but nutritional quinoa by buying the grain grown that is grown in Tasmania. Buying Australian might be more socially equitable and, yes, the Tasmanian grain is organically grown (certification: T.O.P. Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers Inc). You can find out more here:

Nutritional information about quinoa.

Needed: honesty, clarity

The European Union seems the only government to have acted on superfoods’ marketing hype when in 2007 they legislated against use of the term unless accompanied by a specific medical claim supported by credible scientific research (Wikipedia).

This is what happens where there is a lack of clarity in the use of some food marketing term — you get government coming in, and we all know that government is a clumsy and often ineffective entity that can cause a lot of collateral damage when it tries to do something.

A better approach would call for something the advertising and marketing industry is not exactly known for — honesty. Adopting a side helping of that might be a good idea so as not to misinform and mislead shoppers that some product, like grains that can stand on their own nutritional feet, are something they are not.


A note from Freedon Foods for those with nut allergy:

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