Are These 10 “Healthy” Foods Really That Healthy For You?
When confronted by a double act of trusted science and PR puff, it can sometimes be difficult to discern superfood from super-fad. MH put 10 usual suspects in the dock to examine the evidence.
Your Expert Jury:
- James Collins. Sport and exercise nutritionist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance in the UK
- Joey Lott. Author of Food Myths: Going Beyond the Health Food Fads and Getting Real about Science, Health and Nutrition
- Brian Ford. Research biologist, professor and author of The Future of Food
The Claim – The shirt-staining wonderorbs burst with vit C, vit K and blood sugar-balancing manganese. Studies have even suggested they fight cancer and boost memory.
The Case History – Smart farmers, not yummy mummies, are behind the hype. “Blueberries are heavily promoted by producers, eager to swell their coffers,” says Ford. “Yes, they contain antioxidants but most fruits do. One study suggested they reduce heart attack risk, but the subjects were also eating strawberries.”
The Evidence – Not well rounded. Most of the cancer and memory studies were conducted on animals and there is no evidence that the anthocyanins in blueberries – which decrease cancercausing free radical damage – are absorbed by humans. Very much a superfood if you’re a mouse, though.
The Verdict – Blueberries will arm you with flu-fighting vitamin C and the antioxidants minimise muscle soreness after exercise – but you can pick whatever berries are in season. “Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries are very similar,” says Collins.
The Claim – Chia fans – a.k.a. food-fadfollowers – say the South American seeds have eight times more omega-3 than salmon and are rich in appetite- quenching fibre and muscle-bulking protein.
The Case History – For you, it’s a high-cost health shop staple; for farmers, it’s just a new way to make a mint. “Chia – a plant from the mint family – grows in poor soil, so is promoted to make money from otherwise fruitless ground,” says Ford. “Omega-3 is its selling point, but it is not easily absorbed in this form.”
The Evidence – Minty fresh it ain’t. A 28g dose of chia seeds contains 4g of protein and 11g of fibre, but some of the marketing claims are so wild they don’t even make sense. “Consumers are taught that chia seeds rid the body of free radicals – but these help us fight bacteria and aid cell communication,” says Ford.
The Verdict – They might be a good source of protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals, but the tiny seeds come with a hefty price tag. For a more affordable fibreand- protein hit, snack on apple slices with a generous side of low-fat cheese.
The Claim – Coconut water is pitched as a natural hydration product rich in electrolytes and sugars, which energise your workout.
The Case History – “Industrialists discovered that impoverished farmers were dumping coconut water as they processed the more valuable coconut flesh,” says Lott. And so, in a profitable interpretation of “waste not, want not”, the byproduct was dressed in fancy packaging and became the yogi’s bottled salvation.
The Evidence – Conflicting. One study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests this tropical H2O is as effective as a sports drink, with five times more potassium to help ease muscle contractions. But don’t pour your energy drink down the sink just yet. It contains a third less salt than sports drinks, hence why a rival 2012 study proved it was no better for hydration than water.
The Verdict – Slurp it if you like the taste, but never during fat-burning sessions. “It has a high sugar content, which switches off fat metabolism,” says Collins. “During heavy training, just drink water with some low-sugar cordial. In athlete tests, orange outscores lemon and lime.”
The Claim – Beetroot juice is flogged as a miracle elixir that lowers blood pressure and ramps up your marathon stamina.
The Case History – No X-Files conspiracies here: the research is solid. Sign up to the fan club, just don’t get too swept away with the hype. “Beetroot is just a mutant turnip that over-produces betanin, which turns it red,” says Ford. “It contains the same healthy compounds and nitrates as other veg.”
The Evidence – The science is compelling. A 2013 review revealed that beetroot converts nitrates into nitric oxide, which lowers blood pressure; and a separate study showed the root vegetable improves the endurance of recreational athletes more than it helps elite athletes. Bad news for Cristiano Ronaldo; awesome news for you.
The Verdict – This is one superfood with no stains on its conscience (though we can’t say the same for your T-shirt). Beetroot juice will inject you with blood-building iron and folate, and a 2012 study in the Journal of Physiology showed that it reduces the oxygen cost of exercise. But it’s not alone. “Green leafy veg can have a similar effect,” says Collins. So swap your usual pre-workout powder for a home-juiced, stamina-boosting smoothie.
The Claim – The super-nut is said to protect your heart, minimise weight gain and extend your life. Too perfect a snack?
The Case History Almonds have overtaken peanuts as the most scoffed nut in the USA, thanks in no small part to the anti-lactose health nuts home-brewing almond milk. “A truckload can be worth millions, so they’re highly profitable,” says Ford.
The Evidence – The hipsters have it right: almonds are worth more than peanuts. A study in Obesity showed that people who ate fibre-packed almonds twice a week were 31% less likely to pack on weight. Just don’t milk them for all they’re worth. “There are 2 350 kJ per 100g, compared with 2 890 for butter,” warns Ford.
The Verdict – Feel free to buy cheaper nuts: a Harvard University study proved that eating a handful of any variety once a day boosts lifespan by 20%.
The Claim – Its devotees insist a 30ml shot of wheatgrass juice contains as many nutrients as 1kg of veg, as well as building red blood cells.
The Case History – The buzz was created by American agricultural chemist Charles Schnabel in the 30s. “He was granted a patent during the Great Depression, so he worked hard to convince the public it was nutritious,” says Lott.
The Evidence – Thin on the ground. The British Dietetic Association says wheatgrass doesn’t even count toward your five-a-day. And the blood story is dubious too. “The plant’s chlorophyll is said to produce oxygen-carrying haemoglobin, but in reality the body just breaks it down,” explains Ford. “It’s like sipping a lawn.” Tastes like it, too. 06
The Verdict One shot provides 80% of your daily need of eye-boosting vitamin A, but for a cheaper and broader nutrient hit, switch to spinach: 30g contains 22 times more mood-boosting beta-carotene, three times more heart-protecting magnesium and infinitely more pleasure on the palate. And for a real energy hit without the grassy aftertaste, favour soybeans: their B vitamins help metabolise carbs for fuel.
The Claim – Big-money advertising campaigns say the juice’s antioxidants tackle high blood pressure and heart disease, while speeding up post-exercise recovery too.
The Case History – “Pomegranate juice was always cheap and unpopular so corporations found new ways to market it,” says Ford. Turns out, the more expensive they made it, the more popular it became. But don’t get juiced by the Don Drapers of the pomegranate industry. “The US Federal Trade Commission is investigating misleading ads by companies who get rich on groundless beliefs. It’s their bank balance that gets healthy, not you.”
The Evidence – Unsatisfactory. One study showed the ruby-red juice prevented heart problems – but only 45 people took part. And most of the fruit’s heart-boosting polyphenols are in the inedible peel, which is a bitter truth to swallow. However, a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research paper proved it does at least help athletes recover from weight training.
The Verdict – Glugging 100ml will give you 12% of your RDA of immunity-boosting vitamin C and 16% of your bonebuilding vitamin K, but it will also cost you an arm and a leg. Stick to the whole fruit – with a dollop of Greek yoghurt – for a recovery snack with no added sugar.
The Claim Modern brands claim these berries from China improve immunity, elevate brain activity, increase lifespan and turn you into a demi god of near limitless power. That anyone could have survived pre-goji beggars belief.
The Case History – As historically grounded as The Hobbit. In his film The Fruit Hunters, Adam Leith Gollner reveals how nutritionist Earl Mindell turned the world’s attention to the berry in his 2003 work Goji: The Himalayan Health Secret, which tells the tale of Li Qing- Yuen, a Chinese man who ate the fruit and lived for 252 years. Believe in Bilbo, and you might believe that too.
The Evidence – Flimsy at best. The immunity studies were performed in labs using purified and concentrated extracts that are prohibitively expensive, while the 2008 study that suggested goji berries enhance brain activity involved just 34 subjects.
The Verdict “Goji berries do have a high antioxidant content which aids immunity,” says Collins. “But is it worth paying more for these than other berries? Definitely not. Tart cherries have a similar taste and nutritional profile.” For a real mental lift, sprinkle turmeric over steamed greens: a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology proved it boosts alertness and mood within 60 minutes.
The Claim – Health food gurus and the #eatclean queens of Instagram believe sprinkling flaxseed into your morning porridge lowers cholesterol, reduces heart disease and stabilises blood sugar.
The Case History – “Flax wasn’t really eaten until the late 20th century because it was traditionally used in the manufacturing of textiles,” says Lott. That’s right, your miracle grain was used to make bed sheets and pants. “When cotton made flax less profitable, the industry started duping us into eating the stuff.” (You wouldn’t sprinkle cotton over your breakfast, would you?)
The Evidence – Flashing hot and cold. A Greek study implied alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 in flaxseed, fights cholesterol – but a 2009 review revealed this was in postmenopausal women, not gym-going men. The National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health says there is insufficient evidence to show that flaxseed prevents heart disease. But at least you know what to get grandma for her birthday.
The Verdict – Flaxseed does contain blood-stabilising protein and fibre. “But the plant form of omega-3 is not as beneficial as that of fish,” says Ford. For a superior, cheaper dose of protein, fibre and omega-3, start your day with eggs, oat bread and mackerel.
The Claim – The Godfather of green superfoods, broccoli is said to lower blood pressure, fight cancer and galvanize your body with hunger-busting fibre, blood clotting vitamin K and depression-slashing folic acid.
The Case History – So much for keeping it in the family. “What people call ‘broccoli’ is in fact ‘calabrese’,” explains Ford. “Broccoli has purple flowers and slender stems, but the dense heads of calabrese are a form of kale. They have a similar nutritional profile, but not all broccoli and calabrese have the compounds that lower cancer- causing molecules.”
The Evidence – Forget about it. A University of Liverpool study showed that broccoli could prevent cancer, but wider evidence is inconclusive; and a 2010 research paper revealed that broccoli doesn’t reduce blood pressure. But it’s not all bad news: one cup (90g) still provides 245% of your RDA of vitamin K, 53% of chromium, and 42% of folic acid.
The Verdict – Despite question marks over its disease-slaying qualities, every wiseguy knows that offthe- shelf broccoli is still a powerhouse of nutrients. “With its calcium, fibre and vitamins, broccoli stacks up,” says Collins. “Same goes for most cruciferous veg: pak choi is an easy alternative to add to stir-fries and broths.”