I was thrilled when a writer from AARP reached out to me for an interview. The topic was right in my wheelhouse…healthful eating for those over 50. When we spoke by phone, my enthusiasm dipped as she explained that her editor wanted the column to be about “superfoods.” I’m not a fan of the term “superfoods,” but super dietary patterns might be a better angle for the story. My suggestions were met with understanding from the writer, but as is often the case “superfoods” in a headline makes for clickable content and the editor has the final say.
When the article appeared online (click here for the article), I posted it to my social media and expressed my concern about the topic of superfoods and was happy that a fellow dietitian, Michele Redmond replied, “I had hoped the term “superfood” had died, but I keep seeing it in media and hearing it from my students!” Michele is a registered dietitian and chef and a “food enjoyment activist.” (To learn more about Michele, click here.) Michele teaches people flexible ways to simply eat well and enjoy making satisfying, flavorful meals.
“There is no formal definition, designation or regulation for “superfood,” Michele explains. That means that when you see a list of superfoods know that they “become defined by the agenda of whomever is writing about it.” Often the intentions are good; no dietitian would argue that eating more fruits and vegetables, more fiber-rich foods, or lean sources of protein aren’t healthful. However, some stories about superfoods promote a product, a diet plan, or supplements that financially benefit the writer. Just because someone declares a food to be “super” doesn’t mean it is.
This loops back to my comments to the writer…. a food that is called “super” only gets its superpowers when it is part of a healthful eating pattern. Eating a pint of blueberries every day won’t lessen your risk of poor health if you also smoke a pack of cigarettes and eat bacon, cheeseburgers each day.
Michele also notes how easy it is to move from “superfood to clean versus dirty and good versus bad foods.” Foods can take on moral overtones when thinking of foods in discrete categories. How many times have you heard someone say they “were bad” after eating an ice cream sundae? Eating ice cream doesn’t make you a bad person, but our language around food often gets tangled up with our self- worth. “Fear, doubt, and judgment should not be on anyone’s menu,” adds Michele.
Labeling something a superfood can also give it a health halo that isn’t always deserved. Just because someone declared that cookies made from “superfood” ingredients or organic cane sugar, gluten-free flour, and non-GMO ingredients doesn’t make them anything other than what they are; they are still cookies. The other issue with superfoods that Michele and I agree on is the “exclusive, and potentially elitist application.” With food insecurity on the rise in the older adult population, it is not helpful to position some foods with hefty price tags as more desirable. As an example, researchers found that when organic foods are touted as superior to conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, shoppers, especially those with low incomes, are less likely to buy any vegetables and fruit. And, considering that only 1 in 10 Americans eat enough produce each day, we should be encouraging, not discouraging intake.
Dietitians want foods to be affordable, accessibility, and appropriate for all Americans. We know that frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are good choices and, in many cases, more affordable, accessible, and appropriate than fresh. No one should be made to feel bad or shamed if they don’t shop at pricy specialty shops or use canned peas instead of fresh.
So, the next time you see the word “superfoods” in a headline, don’t fall for it! As Michele says, “you have your own superpowers to chose good foods that fit into your own super eating pattern.”
The author of the AARP story reached out to me last week saying the article was so popular her editor assigned her another piece…”bad foods to avoid for those over 50.” As my mother-in-law would say, “oy veh!”
Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. Her book, Food & Fitness After 50 (with co-author Bob Murray) is available here. Follow her blog by clicking here now!