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‘Superfoods’ – What’s the myth?

fb0fbea3-1d79-4bd6-8b0b-7518d368c73cSuperfood is a term, used to describe food with high nutrient that may confer health benefits, with few properties considered to be negative, such as being high in saturated fats or artificial ingredients, food additives or contaminants.

Superfood” health benefits in the media:  The NHS apparently got a little fed up of all the health chatter regarding “superfoods” and decided to take a closer look at 1,750 of it’s Behind the Headlines stories.  (Since 2007, Behind the Headlines has been reviewing 2 health science media stories daily and checking out the health claims against the cited research sources.)

344 of these stories about foods that apparently impacted health, and the NHS noted that:

27 foods had been labelled harmful
65 foods had been declared beneficial
14 foods were labelled as both harmful and beneficial!

Scientific Status of “Superfoods”: Some of the featured headlines claim that the given food could “save your life” – foods such as garlic, curry, beetroot juice and 2 ½ bottles of wine a week!

Some of the limitations of studies, which can skew the stated outcomes: Study Group of 10 people over a period of 1 week for a particular food is hardly enough to prove the benefits and promote the given food to “superfood” status;

Confounding factors:  Some studies look at one or two medical parameters impacted by the given food, not always taking into account other lifestyle, demographic and health factors. It is difficult to assert that the health benefit came solely from the food, or whether it was influenced by some of these other factors;

Human recall: Many food studies rely on what is reported by the participants.  Who can actually remember how much of what they ate and drank over the last 3 months? Not everyone tells the exact truth – would you feel comfortable admitting that you drink 2 bottles of wine, 5 nights a week? It’s human nature to “adjust” to fit into social norms.

Proxy outcomes: The NHS report takes the example of a study that showed that eating fish thrice a week was associated with a slight reduction in risk of certain brain abnormalities, while the associated media headline reported that oily fish could reduce memory loss. But memory loss wasn’t actually tested.

 Medical studies on animals: For any medical research to be fully proven for us, it has to be tested on a good number, over a significant period of time. So finding that a component found in red-wine extends the lifespan of obese mice is interesting, but even if the math were valid for humans… to get a similar result, you’d have to drink several bottles of wine a day!

Study funding: If a chocolate manufacturer sponsors scientific research into the benefits of eating chocolate, they may not necessarily be looking for bad or no press!

Many studies do provide positive preliminary results.  If you take time to read the small print of the actual studies, this is clearly stated, but small print never sold newspapers, web advertising or food! All of this says that you should not believe everything you read about “superfoods.”

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