What’s So Super About Superfood?

What's So Super About Superfood?

Kale. It’s everywhere. It came almost out of nowhere from being a vegetable that you might get in a bigger supermarket and would probably only have heard of if you wanted variety in your vegetarian/ vegan diet. Then there was the EXPLOSION. Kale is a health food! It’s awesome! It’s got more nutrients than a boring cabbage… and look, you can do EVERYTHING with it.

Seriously, has anyone actually read all the recipes you can do with kale? Kale chips, kale smoothies, kale muffins. You can buy it even in your teeny local grocers, and you can absolutely get it in your trendy health food store.

Then came quinoa or “keen-wa” as it’s supposed to be pronounced. Most of us had never heard of it, many of us still need reminders on pronunciation, but the health food community love it! Quinoa! Quinoa and kale!

Yeah, all well and good, except for the slight problems that come alongside such fads.

Increased popularity brings increased demand. The supply has to go up, and the price can go up as well. This is especially true with foods known to be healthy, as they’re often required by consumers to be organic as well. Lots of these things aren’t grown in the UK, and there certainly aren’t any established farms producing the huge amounts that we suddenly want.

The supply then comes from the countries that the super-food originates from.

Uh, the countries where such foods are big parts of the local people’s diets.

Supply in the west has gone up, and with it the price ($0.080 in 1970 to $3.029 in 2011). Farmers now have a choice: they can sell it to their neighbours for the same old price or they can ship it out for more! The value of a foodstuff has rocketed suddenly… and suddenly, quinoa is easier to get in rainy Britain than it is where it’s eaten as part a staple diet. The high demand for quinoa has placed social and environmental pressure on Bolivia along with the financial benefits to growers.

Frankly, I think the super-food trend is missing something here.

All these new food fads are ‘exotic’ ingredients that seem brilliant to people raised on a diet of meat and two veg (carrots and sweetcorn, carrots and sweetcorn, carrots and sweetcorn, and sprouts make an annual outing come Christmas). Most of our popular dishes we’ve nicked from someone else. Chinese takeaway, curry, pizza. When you break it down to the key ingredients, these are things that we already had (bread, meat, potatoes, veg) with a few more herbs and spices and constructed in a different order.

Then there’s the questionable super-food title splashed on these popular new diet foods. The protein content of quinoa is higher than most cereals, but it’s still lower than most beans and legumes. Basically, whilst it’s better than some foods, it’s not as good as others. That’s like saying that the brand-new superhero in town is faster than a high school running club member but not as fast as Usain Bolt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that quinoa is bad. It’s gluten free, which is great if you’re gluten intolerant. And if you live in Bolivia or Peru, where it’s an integral part of your main diet, it’s pretty good.

It’s not so super for the average Brit.

Super-foods and other health buzzwords trick people into thinking that one food (frequently more expensive or harder to get old of) can do the work of many. Eat your kale and forget about the chocolate muffins you ate in your break! Quinoa will provide your protein, so don’t worry that there’s no nutritional value in your hotdogs! Eat these special super-foods and forget about the boring balanced diet that’s so uninspiring!

Vegetables aren’t magic. Ones like quinoa have different nutrients because they’re grown in different climates, where they’re needed in different quantities. Vegetables ARE good for us, but they’re still not the only answer. Unless you’re on a particular restrictive diet for health or ethical reasons, you should be able to get everything you need from the average, readily available conventional foods in your area. The fact is that there are no ‘superfoods’ that can answer all your problems. You still need the variety of fruit and vegetables in your daily diet to get the full scope you need.

Like most trends and fads, this surge of popularity will probably wane when the next thing comes along, and it still won’t give us the better bodies we want without the work.

Photo credit: Bioversity International/Alfredo Camacho