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Nothing super about superfoods

There is no such thing as a superfood, but of course there are bad foods as well as good wines to herald spring with, Tom Doorley writes

As Leo Benedictus wrote in The Guardian, a few years back, there are few lies that can be told in one word, but ‘superfoods’ cracks it. I am constantly dismayed at how so many otherwise intelligent, well-­adjusted people buy into this ludicrous notion; people who are not suckered into believing in ‘chemtrails’ or opposing vaccination, people who you would be happy to have at your dinner table.

Tom Doorley

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The whole area of nutrition is awash with strange ideas, and most people don’t know the difference between a protein and a carbohydrate. Long-chain fatty acids are a closed book to most intelligent, well-informed human beings.

Even among those who do understand such things, disagreement appears to be rife. A couple of weeks ago, we heard that maternal coffee consumption in pregnancy can lead to childhood obesity. I like the ‘can’ there.
And it seems like it is only the other day that we were told that drinking coffee can protect against type 2 diabetes. ‘Can’, again.

Vegetarian diet
The latest nutrition story to hit the headlines involves a study by the University of Toronto in Canada, which suggests that a vegetarian diet ‘could be’ as effective as statins.

This is something to which I’d like to return in due course, but you can be sure that vegetarian diets are larded — so to speak — with ‘superfoods’.

In the United Kingdom (UK), 61 per cent of consumers buy certain foods because they believe them to be, well, super. They are doubtless a bit vague as to why and how super, but the true zealots claim that the antioxidants involved deal with the free radicals that are implicated in ageing and cancer. They claim this with no actual evidence and, anyway, free radicals are utilised by the body as bactericides.

At least, so I understand from Dr Ben Goldacre who has done much to combat quackery.
What most people call broccoli, but what is actually calabrese, is pretty good on paper: plenty of dietary fibre, a bit of calcium and some vitamin C. It’s also, as they say, fat-free — but I’m not sure how many of us fancy eating it without, say, butter or olive oil. It is also local for most of the year, but not as local as kale which grows like a weed in our damp, cool climate.

There’s a particular variety of kale called Hungry Gap and there’s a theory that it’s so named because you would need a very hungry gap indeed to enjoy eating it. I can take kale or leave it, and I would not want to have it once a week. But what am I missing?

The short answer is nothing. Kale is pretty much the same as any other leafy member of the brassica family, all of which vary a little in their nutritional composition.

Benign superfoods
Other so called superfoods are less benign as far as the planet is concerned. Avocados, with their high hipster rating, come with a pretty poor environmental rating and, according to Benedictus, have rather more calories than a Mars bar. Personally, I believe an avocado is a healthier choice notwithstanding, but there is very little significant evidence that this ‘long-distance fruit’ is nutritionally exceptional.

Ah, but what about quinoa, which I still insist on pronouncing phonetically just to annoy the kind of people who say keen-wah? Well, it tastes horri­ble and, of course, this might suggest, to some, that it has to be good for you. The nastiness comes thanks to a high concentration of saponins which persist even after thorough rinsing.

Quinoa is said by the kind of people who use the word ‘superfood’, without any sense of irony, to be exceptionally high in protein. It’s not. It has marginally more than rice. They also seem to think it’s a grain. It’s not. It’s a seed (you may want to Google here, but perhaps life is too short).

Chia seeds! Let me just see if I can remember… Ah yes, for me they are better than their fellow seed, quinoa, in that they don’t taste actively unpleasant. They contain masses of omega 3 oils but not in the same form as those contained in fish, which are much, much more easily assimilated by the body. If you still believe that every calorie behaves the same way as every other calorie, you may be interested to know that chia seeds are hugely calorific.

Bad food or bad diet?
Some people are inclined to say that there’s no such thing as a bad food, just a bad diet.
This is nonsense.
Of course there are bad foods. But there’s no such thing as a superfood.

A spring tipple
And so to wine — I know I’m tempting fate here, but I want to herald the coming of spring, at last, with a wine that puts a spring in one’s step. Exquisite Collection Crèmant du Jura (€11.99, Aldi), pictured right, suffers from such a keen price that it runs the risk of not being taken seriously. In fact, it’s a stunner: 100 per cent Chardonnay, dry, complex on the nose, long on the palate. For less than the price of a standard Prosecco Spumante, you can’t go wrong.

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