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The truth about superfoods

Improving your immune system, extending life and preventing cancer are among the many powers attributed to a group of so called ‘superfoods’. But does the term ‘superfood’ stand up to scientific scrutiny? And can eating a single food have the power to prevent a disease?

What is a superfood?

Many believe superfoods contain more nutrients and antioxidants than other foods and some suggest they have medicinal properties. In fact there is no agreed definition of what a superfood is and in 2011 the EU banned the term from food labels unless supported by scientific evidence. What is clear is the term ‘superfood’ was made up by marketing departments, not nutrition experts.

Surely food has an impact on health?

There is no doubt that eating well can reduce the risk of illness but there’s no evidence that superfoods help any more than following a healthy, balanced diet. Eating a superfood will not compensate for an otherwise unhealthy diet.

Functional foods

There is another term, “functional foods” used to describe a food that can improve health. This can be claimed on a label because there is sufficient evidence to justify the claim. For example, oats contain beta-glucans, a substance proven to lower cholesterol levels.

Are there dangers associated with eating so called superfoods?

If you’re focusing on a single superfood, you might not get enough variety into your diet, and the sum of what you eat is more important than any individual food.

What is the best approach to choosing key foods that can help keep you healthy?

Sometimes so-called superfoods are already part of our daily diet, as in the case of oats and broccoli. But others such as goji berries, wheatgrass and spirulina can be expensive and unnecessary additions.

Five nutritional shortcuts to better health

While we love to believe there may be a magic bullet or superfood that would make us lose weight while still enjoying chocolate, feel less tired or look better, the reality is that true shortcuts to health are few and far between.

Here is the medically proven advice to make choosing food to keep you and your family healthy just a little bit easier:

1. Get your five a day. Use the colours of the rainbow as your guide.

Eat as many different coloured fruit and vegetables as you can to maximise the range micronutrients in your diet. It’s not only fresh fruit and vegetables that counts. Frozen, canned and dried do, too. Frozen fruit and veg is flash frozen at harvest time, which helps to retain vitamins and minerals.

2. Eat more fibre. We should be aiming to eat around 30g of fibre a day, but most people only manage around 18g.

Fibre helps digestive health and can contribute to weight loss as it helps to keep us feeling full. An easy way to increase your fibre intake is to swap white bread and pasta for wholemeal versions. Getting your five a day and eating wholegrains and nuts can also help you increase your fibre intake.

3. Eat foods that will help to lower your cholesterol. Six in 10 adults in the UK have high cholesterol.

Consuming products containing 2g of plant sterols and stanols[1] a day has been proven to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol by up to 10-15%. However, it’s also important to limit your saturated fat intake and these products only work as part of a healthy diet.

4. Reduce your salt intake. A high salt intake is linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

An adult should aim to consume no more than 6g a day but, on average, we are having 8.1g. Cutting down on salt is a real shortcut to a healthier life.

5. Cut your sugar intake According to scientists advising the government, we should halve the amount of ‘free’ sugar (added sugars and sugar found naturally in honey and fruit juice) we consume.

New recommendations propose that women have no more than 25g and men 35g[2] a day. Swap fruit juice for whole fruits and cut out fizzy drinks to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

How to eat well and save money

It is important to think carefully before following a food fad because the jury may be out on how good a food is for your health and it can cost a lot of money. For example, swapping 80g of broccoli for 10g wheatgrass can provide the same amount of chlorophyll, vitamins A, C and E, iron and calcium and save 79p [3].

[1] Plant sterols and stanols also occur naturally in nuts, seeds, pulses, fruit and vegetables

[2] The amount of sugar found in a can of fizzy drink.

[3] WHICH? August 2014

A Healthier Lifestyle