Healthy food fads – are they any better?

April 3, 2015 | Food & nutrition

Bile BeansRead most nutrition blogs and you’ll discover numerous posts on various amazing “healthy” foods. Quinoa – an amazing source of protein. Agave nectar – a healthy substitute for sugar. Acai berries – antioxidant superfood. But are they any better than some other common foods? Lifehacker Australia recently ran an good story pointing out that some of these “health” foods are overrated.

quinoa

Did you know that the so called protein-rich quinoa is no better than a hard-boiled egg? One cup of cooked quinoa (185g) contains 8.1g of protein (4.4%). One large hard-boiled egg of 62g size, contains 7.8g of protein (12.6%). So if you want to increase your protein intake, what do you think is more efficient – eating 185g cup of quinoa, or one 62g boiled egg? (Data from Nutritiondata.self.com)

Agave nectar is all the rage now. Straight up, or as a sweetening agent in biscuits, cereals and snack bars, it is being is promoted as a healthy alternative to normal sugar. It is claimed to have a low glycaemic index, however this is mostly because it is low in glucose and high in fructose. And high dietary intake of fructose is being implicated as a contributing factor to fatty liver disease and heart disease. So is it any better than normal sugar? Not much. It might have a few additional nutrients above and beyond the carbohydrates, but the fact is it is still a concentrated source of sugars, so should be used sparingly.

Acai berriesAcai berries are being promoted as an antioxidant superfood, and being added in small amounts to yoghurts, some fruit juices, and even snack bars. This has been based on a very high oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score – a measure of antioxidant capability. However the United States Department of Agriculture Nutrient Data Laboratory removed their listing of the ORAC ratings of various foods because “ORAC values are routinely misused by food and dietary supplement manufacturing companies to promote their products and by consumers to guide their food and dietary supplement choices”.

It seems the antioxidant value of acai berries largely comes from a range of naturally occurring polyphenol compounds, including various anthocyanins and flavonoids. However these are not unique to acai – pretty much every red, purple, blue or black coloured berry fruit has loads of these same chemicals (such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries). Green tea has related antioxidant chemicals, as does dark chocolate, and even onions have quite large concentrations of flavonoids.

So should we stop eating these fashionable foods? Not necessarily. But they are certainly not the answer to the world’s health problems. The health food industry loves to create and promote fads around specific foods. And many people, desiring shortcuts to improving their health, fall for the marketing. Is a fruit juice with 1% added acai berry juice better than the same juice with out the acai? Maybe slightly better. Is it worth the 25% greater cost? Highly unlikely.

In the end, a healthy diet is a varied diet. Focusing on just a handful of foods as the source of ultimate nutrition and health, is missing the whole point. Incorporate a multitude of foods in your diet. Make your diet colourful, varied in taste and texture, and most importantly less processed, and you will have achieved your own personal “superfood” diet.

Featured image by Dave Pickersgill
Quinoa image by Christian Guthier
Acai image by papagaio-pirata

Copyright Ian Breakspear, 2014