Superfood Hype: Why You Don't Need Kale and Goji Berries to Achieve Optimal Health
We all know fruits and vegetables are good for us. We all know we should eat several of each every single day. But some fruits and vegetables are hyped as particularly healthy. Now you can get an acai bowl or pomegranate juice for a super dose of antioxidants, and of course you must Eat More Kale, if you believe the bumper stickers.
Is the hype about these foods just too good to be true? Is it possible that including these specific foods in your diet as much as possible actually isn't necessary for optimal health?
Yale students who work on the school's organic farm might be seen wearing shirts bearing the word "Kale" in the style of the school's logo. Online, one can buy anything from T-shirts to water bottles to stickers with the slogan "Eat More Kale."
Kale is, and always was, a healthy vegetable in the cabbage family, but today it has become a cultural icon, a rallying symbol for foodies across the U.S. (Interestingly, it does not bear this meaning worldwide; in Kenya it is a staple of the poor.)
To the backyard gardener, kale has a lot going for it. So does arugula, another vegetable that has taken on a life of its own of late. If you plant kale's relatives broccoli or cauliflower in your garden, you have to wait a long time until the plant produces a crop — and once you harvest that head of broccoli or cauliflower, that's it. You're done. But if you plant kale, you can continuously harvest leaves off the plant, doing so well into freezing temperatures and even snow. (Cold weather makes kale sweeter.) Better yet, you can eat kale raw in a salad or cooked in a dish, making it more versatile in the kitchen than many veggies.
Arugula, now a symbol of culinary snobbery, is not as long-lived as kale in the garden, but you can plant it by tossing a handful of seeds onto a patch of dirt and the plant will continuously reseed itself if you let it. It's practically a weed. How unpretentious is that?
The verdict on kale? Yes, it's healthy, but it's not the only healthy vegetable. If you like it, eat it. If you prefer other cabbage family relatives like radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, collards, turnips, mustard greens, or brussel sprouts, eat those instead. Or mix it up, and eat a little of each.
Orange juice is the granddaddy of all overhyped fruit juices; so much so we don't even consider it hyped. Once upon a time, orange juice was not a part of the quintessential American breakfast. That is because the only way to obtain orange juice was to juice several oranges yourself, and many Americans lived far away from where oranges grow.
Orange juice was initially popularized as a way to increase demand for a glut of Florida oranges, with marketing help from the likes of Bing Crosby, as author Alissa Hamilton details in her book Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice. Once the technology was in place to manufacture and distribute orange juice from concentrate (and later, not from concentrate), the product was able to find its way to the American breakfast table.
"I tell people if you like it, drink it, but not because you think it's good for you. You'd be better off with a whole orange than a glass of orange juice. It has more fiber and more vitamin C. But I'm not a dietitian," Hamilton told the Boston Globe in 2009.
The orange juice story leads to a more recent marketing success: that of pomegranates. Native to the Middle East, up until a few years ago, pomegranates were not a commonly consumed food in the U.S. But Lynda Resnick changed that.
Lynda Resnick was in advertising when she met her husband, business mogul Stewart Resnick. Together, the Beverly Hills power couple is worth $4.1 billion, from businesses selling everything from pistachios, almonds and citrus to Fiji bottled water and Teleflora flowers. They initially invested in agriculture as a hedge against inflation. With her flair for marketing, Lynda poured $34 million into researching health benefits of pomegranates and then popularized their juice under the Pom Wonderful brand in a memorably shaped bottle. It did not hurt that she gave it away by the case to nearly every celebrity in her Rolodex.
So can you really cheat death by drinking pomegranate juice daily? Here is what is clear. A cup of pomegranate seeds contains nearly 24g of sugars and 7g of fiber, with 30 percent of your daily Vitamin C. One cup of pomegranate juice, however, contains 32g of sugars, no fiber, and nearly no vitamin C.
A Los Angeles Times article critiques the claim that pomegranate juice has beneficial effects on prostate cancer. A Pom Wonderful-funded study "found that the juice may slow the elevation of PSA levels [a marker of prostate health], but acknowledged that the phenomenon might not tell doctors anything of clinical value," wrote the LA Times. "Moreover, the study was done without a control group treated with a placebo, meaning that the scientists had no grounds for attributing any of their findings to the pomegranate juice." While the study results appear promising, they were not conclusive enough to justify the claims made by Resnick's company.
In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration sent Pom Wonderful a letter telling it to stop making marketing claims about the health benefits of its product. That is not to say pomegranates or pomegranate juice do not provide health benefits, just that the claims the company was making were not in compliance with U.S. law.
Are pomegranates good for you? Certainly. Are they as good as Lynda Resnick wants you to believe? Who knows?
Fad Foods: Acai, Goji, Pitaya
These "super foods" are each marketed as your one-stop shop to health. Acai is a berry that grows on a palm tree in the Amazon, and is often served in the U.S. as a sorbet or mixed with sugary foods like apple juice. Goji is a plant in the mightshade family, and the fruits are often sold dried, or even chocolate covered. It is often marketed as a Himalayan product, but most of it comes from China, and nowhere near the Himalayas. Pitaya is the Spanish word for dragon fruit, a pink or white fruit grown on a cactus. You might have seen it sold as a healthy booster shot at a juice bar along with another hyped vegetable: wheatgrass.
No doubt these foods are all good for you. After all, they are fruits. They are probably healthiest in their whole form, as opposed to a juice, a chocolate-covered treat, or mixed in with other ingredients. But you can probably live a healthy life without them, and you certainly should not forgo other healthy whole foods to go on an all goji berry diet.
The key to health is a wide range of mostly plant-based whole foods, as Michael Pollan says. Just as the Resnicks got into agriculture to hedge their investments, you should hedge your diet by diversifying as much as possible. Eat kale, pomegranates, or acai if you enjoy the flavor, but don't feel bad skipping them if they don't appeal to you, or if you can't afford them. If you are consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, you are probably doing okay. Let your body and your doctor determine your diet, not marketers who want you to break the bank for the latest Amazonian wonder food they've imported this week.