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Red Wine, Dark Chocolate, Blueberries: Is There Any Science Behind the "Superfood" Hype?

As a rule of thumb, any food that supposedly solves a large list of health problems — from Alzheimer’s to zits — should immediately be regarded with suspicion.

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Whew! And that’s leaving out what so many scam Internet marketers claim for açai: losing weight. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has warned consumers that claims of weight loss from açai have not been supported by research.

What is it about these foods that supposedly work miracles? Is it the anthocyaninschlorogenic acidcatechinspterostilbene, or  resveratroldoing the magic? If so, why not just take a single pill with megadoses of these ingredients and be done with it? Some argue that these antioxidants only work synergistically with other compounds found in the foods themselves and are not effective in pill form when isolated from other  naturally occurring ingredients.

Besides, to have any impact at all on our health, we would have to consume extraordinary amounts of these foods. To get enough resveratrol, for example, you have to drink anywhere from  3 to 40 liters of red wine a day. Crack open that bottle — or is it a barrel?

The key to unraveling the various claims is a healthy skepticism and a critical reading of research. In 2007, the European Union banned the use of the term “superfood,” which had been applied to more than 100 different foods, none having research supporting their  health benefits. As a rule of thumb, any food that supposedly solves a large list of health problems — from Alzheimer’s to zits — should immediately be regarded with suspicion. Consumers need to review who is sponsoring the research and ask if it is published in a professional journal where the scientific methodology presumably has been vetted.

Often, claims are based on a single study, occasionally anecdotal, so we need to seek research that replicates the findings. In the meantime, focus on what is considered the best health plan:  a balanced diet, mixing a rainbow of foods in  reasonable portion sizes. And if you happen to like blueberries, green tea or red wine, then treat yourself — just don’t fool yourself.

The simplicity of consuming a single superfood has appeal, especially if it has an exotic image. These are, after all, Brazilian rainforest berries, not sprouts from Brussels, in the picnic basket! Dare we yearn for the time long ago when a simple apple a day was enough to keep the doctor away?

 

 

 
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