It'S THE WEEKEND: Food and drink - Superfoods: How super are they really?

First published in News

WITH the beginning of the New Year many people use this opportunity to kick start the health and fitness regime that they have long been putting off. Carys Thomas looks at the so-called superfoods which some brands are claiming to have properties which can reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke and cancer.

SUPERFOODS, a term coined over the last few years for food which includes salmon, blueberries, broccoli and Kiwis, and which are high in nutrients. But the British Dietetic Association, the professional association for registered dieticians in Great Britain, say the term superfood is not a legally recognised term and has no regulatory approval.

Sioned Quirke, dietician and spokesperson for BDA , said: "Superfood is simply a marketing term that has become trendy over the last few years. Marketing is a multi-billion pound industry and health products are a major player in this.

"Many claims can give us false expectations of the benefits or they aren’t fully substantiated. Research has found that 61 per cent of people questioned about ‘superfoods’ had purchased, eaten or drank a specific food because they had been labelled as a ‘superfood’.

"If you tell people often enough that something is a ‘superfood’, chances are some will start to believe. Claims around curing and preventing diseases, fighting off cancer, even prolonging your life make these foods sound like we couldn’t possibly live without them."

Many food products claiming to be superfoods include exotic foods such as quinoa, a grain which is high in protein, fibre and iron. Researchers have looked at antioxidant phytonutrients in quinoa which may be the key to understanding the anti-inflammatory affects of the grain which could potentially decrease the risk of inflammation related problems such as obesity.

The grain has zinc, vitamin E, and selenium which has been linked with minimising your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Quinoa is easy to prepare and can be eaten alone or mixed with vegetables or nuts.

A recent study of 93,000 women found that participants who ate three or more portions of blueberries and strawberries a week had a 32 per cent lower risk of a heart attack compared with those who ate berries once a month or less according to research conducted by Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia. Blueberries are a good source of vitamin K, contain vitamin C, fibre and other antioxidants. They can be eaten by themselves, added to breakfast cereal or mixed with low-fat yoghurt.

The NHS teamed up with the BDA to discover whether blueberries and other superfoods were as 'super' as many of their products claimed to be. They found a small number of studies which sighted memory improvements due to eating blueberries but found that more research was needed to provide a definitive link between the two.

Ms Quirke said: "Some superfoods can be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet but then again, so can things like chocolate and alcohol. A superfood, in isolation, will never be the key to optimum health. Companies love to bring us exotic foods, such as goji berries but, look closer to home, as more traditional foods such as salmon, eggs, berries, nuts and veg are just as super but simply aren’t marketed that way.

“Some ‘superfood’ products, especially the exotic varieties, are very expensive and have poor availability. We often find that people who can afford to buy these products are following a relatively healthy, balanced diet already and don’t need any additions. It’s also worth knowing that if a ‘scientist’ or ‘specialist’ endorses a product they are usually being paid to do so."

Garlic is named as a superfood and is cited to contain a nutrient which is believed to help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. For these benefits to be achieved a person would have to eat up to 28 cloves of garlic a day according to the NHS Choice website. Studies show high concentrations of garlic extracts have been associated with improved blood circulation but there is no clear evidence to support that garlic improves health.

The BDA suggest using garlic as an alternative to salt for flavouring meals along with lemon juice and herbs. Other superfoods include beans, oats, wheatgrass, beetroot, pomegranate juice and tomatoes.

Rickie Ash, head chef at the Bell at Caerleon and The New Court Hotel in Usk, said: "Fruits are a healthy option such as papaya, bluberries, apricots and bananas which you can mix with granola and natural yoghurt. Instead of rice as a healthier alternative you can use brown rice or lentils. Lentils are really easy to cook you just need to wash them and then boil them."

Mr Ash recommends using roast pumpkin as a substitute for potatoes.

He said: "Pumpkin is cheap and you can still get them at shops for the next couple of months. You take the seeds out and roast the pumpkin with some oil and seasoning.

"Fish is a healthier option, I would recommend wild salmon which is full of omega three. The dish that I make is wild salmon with pumpkin puree, quinoa, baby spinach and a walnut pesto."

He added: "We find that this time of year people tend to enjoy the healthier options on the menu after the indulgence in December. For desserts fruit crumbles are great using apples and blueberries with toasted oats on top. Instead of using ice cream you can use creme fraiche."

The BDA recommend a healthy balanced diet with five or more fruit and vegetables a day, to regularly eat oily fish and vegetarian sources of omega three, add beans and extra vegetables to stews and stir-fry, to eat more wholegrain products such as brown rice and lentils and cut down on fatty meat products such as sausages and pies.

Ms Quirke said: "We live in a society that looks for a ‘magic wand’ type product that simply does not exist. Don’t get caught up in the hype, these trendy terms are simply adding to the confusion around what a healthy, balanced diet is. If something seems too good to be true it usually is."

“The bottom line is, many foods are ‘superfoods’ in their own way, but let’s ditch that phrase. No so-called ‘superfoods’ are going to guide you to the promised land, so aim to have a healthy balanced diet with everything in moderation. Nothing can substitute healthy eating, but many a marketing person can make your wallet lighter.”

For more information on superfoods visit www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/index.html

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