How Super are Superfoods?

This year the NHS produced a report called Miracle foods myths and the media (pdf opens in new window) as part of their Behind the Headlines reports. The report details various foods that have been classified as “superfoods” in recent years and explains how these foods can benefit health while also explaining why they are not really as fantastic as the media often makes out.

The report starts with some claims that its researchers have seen in the media recently, such as “curry could save your life” and “asthma linked to burgers”. It seems that whenever some research is published that discovers a unique property in a fruit or vegetable the mainstream media leap on the story and proclaim that the food item in question is a superfood.

We admit that MotleyHealth is not immune to this as we have run some stories over the years which could be considered a little misleading, such as the news that purple potatoes, purple tomatoes and even the humble broccoli are all super in their ability to provide us with nutrients and antioxidants.  In fact, we have an entire article dedicated to superfoods which includes cabbage, carrots, blueberries, chilli, apples, water cress and even green tea.

How foods have been reported in the media

The NHS have produced this diagram of foods that have been reported as healthy, unhealthy or both good and bad for health between July 2007 and January 2011.

Diagram of good and bad foods according to the media from 2007 to 2011
Source: Miracle foods myths and the media, NHS, 2011.

As you can see from the diagram there are a lot of foods that have at some point been classified as either good or bad, and some that have managed to be considered both good and bad. Some of the biggest surprises are that high carb diets, 5-a-day (i.e. eating 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day), organic food and chicken have all been declared bad at some point.

Even more perplexing is that eggs, grapefruit, fish oils and bacon have all been classified as both good and bad. In the good camp there are also some strange choices which do not look like they belong there, such as fatty food, binge drinking, fry-ups, chewing gum and gummy bears (gelatin-based candies)!

It really is not surprising that the average person chooses to completely ignore most of the dietary advice that they read or hear about. Maybe this is one of the reasons why so much of the good information is falling on deaf ears – people are just sick and tired of being given daft advice that now they switch off to all advice. Do you believe the nutrition advice that you read in the papers?

Do Superfoods Really Exist?

In short, no. The British Nutrition Foundation said in 2007 that there is not really any such thing as a super food, and this is the conclusion that the NHS makes here. No individual food can be considered “super” because a balanced diet is vital. Yes, green tea, broccoli, water cress and blue berries are all very healthy, but individually none of them are going to save your life. Some may contain some properties that show signs of combating certain diseases and conditions, but to label food as “super” gives the wrong impression.

To be healthy you need to eat a well-balanced diet that contains a variety of foods from all the main food groups. This means fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, pulses, dairy, fish, meats and poultry. Variety really is the spice of life.

While it is certainly good in incorporate these healthy foods into your diet it is equally important that your overall diet is good. If 90% of your diet consists of junk food that is processed, high in saturated fat and salt and lacking in nutrients then a few portions of “superfood” on top is not going to make you a healthy person. In fact, this is precisely what the British Nutrition Foundation said – superfoods are worthless is you are not already following a healthy diet.

Unfortunately so many people are looking for a quick fix to good health. Whether it is an easier way to lose fat quickly or a way of eating a healthy diet without having to prepare of cook food, people will always look for short cuts. The media really does not help these people. In the last year we saw an article running that said that eating chocolate was as effective as exercise for weight loss. This was complete nonsense but many newspapers ran with the story.

We have been teaching this for years. In 2008 we commented on superfoods:

“None of these foods will save your life. None of them will counteract a very unhealthy lifestyle. Balance is key.”

Why did this happen?

So, why does research get so badly misinterpreted by newspapers and other media? It could be that both parties are at fault. A lot of research is back by commercial interests and these investors want to see that the research they have been paying for gets out into the mainstream media. Often the only way to do this is to issue a press release. However, a press release that simply stated the facts, such as a copy of the abstract for a research paper, is rarely enticing enough to make an editor put the news on the front page. However, if some aspect of the research is over-hyped even just slightly it can be sensationalized. Newspapers need big, life changing statements not dull statistics.

Another problem is that sometimes the research finds a correlation between two things, such as the consumption of red wine and reduced risk of heart disease, but that does not mean that the two are directly related. It may be true to say that on average people who drink a glass of red wine every day are healthier than those who do not, but it is not true to say that drinking red wine makes you healthy. In 2009 many newspapers reported that red wine is healthy. The Telegraph ran a story “Half a glass of wine a day can add five years to your life“. However, the fact is that those who are drinking red wine instead of beer or spirits may simply be healthier in other aspects of their lives. They may be more active, less obese, smoke less, have a higher social standing (yes, higher social status does correlate with longer life expectancy) or a healthier diet in general.

Another similar relationship that has been cited is that of high salt levels leading to high blood pressure and heart disease. Some have suggested that it is not that salt that causes the heart disease but the whole lifestyle. It just happens that people who tend to drink and smoke more also tend to have a less healthy diet, and it is the drinking and smoking that is the problem.

But here we come to another problem – who is making these claims? Knowing who is behind the claims is vital as otherwise you could be following the advice of puritans who are against drinking and smoking. I am not saying that this is the case, just that we have to be careful.

How confusing advice backfires

Bad advice in the media can be extremely frustrating for health departments which are trying to educate people on healthy eating and making better lifestyle choices. Just about every government has official information on how to be healthy but this is often overlooked or ignored.

Either people believe everything they read in the newspapers and so ignore all the official advice or people lose all faith with any advice regarding nutrition that they treat both government and media information with the deepest suspicion. Many times I have heard people complain that the rules of healthy eating are changing all the time and that they prefer to just ignore it all. This suggests that the reporting of science is often counter-productive.

Ben Goldacre explains how research can be Fixed

Dr. Ben Goldacre explained in a TED Talk how research can be fixed to give the wrong impression. In his talk he mentions several studies relating to health and medicine. The talk is only 14 minutes long and certainly worth watching to learn how we are all so often tricked not only by the tabloid press but by researchers and even unsuspecting doctors. Ben mentions how he once prescribed a drug due to the positive research not realising that 76% of the studies conducted were not shared with the medical community.

What is the solution? Well, really it is to follow government dietary advice and also look for websites that can demonstrate they are making a real effort to educate the facts about healthy eating. One way to look for a good website is to check if they are HONCode certified as this means that they are referencing scientific research and striving for transparency and the facts. However, this is still not a guarantee that every article you read will be completely correct.

2 Comments on “How Super are Superfoods?”

  1. T Bone Steak says:

    Thanks for this, my wife has been trying to get me to eat all sorts of stupid vegetables recently – and she reads the Daily Fail, LOL! I will make her watch Dr. Ben before the next shopping trip (will save us a small fortune too).

  2. MotleyHealth says:

    No problem T Bone. Cheap vegetables are healthy too! Maybe that should be our next campaign slogan?

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