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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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Summertime: outdoor concerts, beaches, barbecues. I don’t know about you, but my picnic basket is going to be filled with blueberries, pomegranates, açai, green tea, omega-3-laden fish and organic probiotic yogurts. This is the summer to start increasing my antioxidants and live longer.

Or so I thought before I rediscovered my critical thinking skills hiding on the bottom of the grocery cart.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to improve the way we eat. In July 2011, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District stopped serving chocolate or strawberry flavored milk, which has about the same amount of  sugar as soda. This follows similar bans in places like Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colo., Minneapolis and San Diego. Along with eliminating breaded foods (like corn dogs and chicken nuggets), these are reasonable moves given childhood obesity and diabetes rates, and provide a symbolic nudge to all of us.

Watching what we eat and curbing fatty, salty and caloric foods, exercising more and not smoking are essential steps. Unfortunately, they require day-in and day-out vigilance. So, believing that a variety of magic bullet “superfoods” will solve our health problems and correct decades of disastrous dietary decisions, while an attractive hope, deserves skeptical investigation.

Many people like to believe that antioxidants are the key to longevity. We think that simply adding blueberries, red wine and dark chocolate to our diet will do the trick. As Barry Glassner points out in  The Gospel of Food, these foods typically provide sensual and aesthetic pleasure, thereby increasing the production of endorphins, resulting in a cheerful demeanor. That alone can be a reasonable explanation of why we may be living longer, rather than attributing causation to the antioxidant foods alone.

Indeed, if antioxidants were sufficient to preserve our lives, Glassner points out, then consuming more packaged foods with the additives BHT and BHA —  fat soluble antioxidants — should work just as well.  Cocoa-covered BHT, anyone?

We’ve been enamored of fad “superfoods” for some time (and just as opposed to “supervillain” foods like high-fructose corn syrup. In the late 1980s, oat bran was the  magic bullet, although there may be a resurgence in sales given its central role in the popular French “Dukan Diet” making in-roads in  many countries. And don’t leave out blueberries and how they reportedly reduce coronary disease, limit obesity, lower bad cholesterol, stave off Alzheimer’s, prevent cancer, improve cognitive skills, fight aging and combat  E. coli, as  one website points out. Let’s pause as we bake some blueberry oat bran muffins made with real cane sugar.

Today, we hear more about such fruits as pomegranate and açai (pronounced ah-SIGH-eee) and their amazing health benefits. A single study found that men treated for prostate cancer who drank pomegranate juice daily for two years showed a decline in a blood protein  related to the disease. Pom Wonderful juice claimed it improved circulation and cardiovascular health, not to mention benefits for erectile dysfunction, but the FDA accused the company of violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by marketing its pomegranate juice as  treatments for diseases.

Açai — what an Oprah show labeled the  “world’s No. 1 superfood” — Superfood is a berry harvested in the  rainforests of Brazil. Claims that it contains an unusually high amount of antioxidants lead people to embrace the fruit in all sorts of forms and disguises: freeze-dried capsules, vitamins, organic Kosher puree, juice, sorbet, ice cream, chocolate, tea, cereal, smoothies, and — my personal favorite —  dark chocolate covered açai with blueberries. Eating all these açai will  purportedly increase libido, promote glowing skin and hair, support the immune system, reduce pain, lead to healthy sleep, rejuvenate the body and mind, possibly kill cancer cells, and act as an anti-inflammatory.

 
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