Raw 'superfoods'

From chia seeds to acai berries, we look beyond the hype to find out if the health benefits of some so-called "superfoods" live up to their claims.
 
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01.Not so super

Not so superfoods

Not all foods are created equally, and you don’t need a degree in nutrition to know that one type of food can be better for you than another. 

But while there are a number of particularly nutritious foods available in supermarkets that can rightly be described as “super” in terms of their healthy eating credentials, there are no strict rules about what can be called a “superfood”. So when a marketer decides to use the word to describe its particular product, there are no guarantees that its superfood is indeed super. 

Powdered, juiced, freeze dried and raw – berries, such as acai, and chia seeds are all the rage, as is the sudden interest in foods South Americans have been eating since ancient times. And although vegetables such as broccoli and peas have been a dinnertime staple in Australia for years, excitement around all things green has also reached new levels in the superfood community. It’s hard enough convincing kids to eat broccoli, so imagine the squeals you’d get serving them a glass of chlorophyll! 

Here, CHOICE takes a look at these and other “superfoods” to find out whether they’re really worth the added expense.

Acaiacai

Cultivated from the acai palm tree native to the tropical regions of Central and South America, acai is widely touted for its superfood properties, with advocates claiming it can lower cholesterol, speed up weight loss and aid arthritis, detoxification and general health. Consumed either raw or as a juice, acai has up to four times more antioxidants than non-berry fruits and 10 times more than vegetables. 

Laboratory studies have found acai demonstrates cholesterol-lowering capabilities, as well as anticancer and anti-inflammatory activity. However, there is no definitive scientific evidence based on studies in humans to support the use of acai for a specific health-related purpose. Regarding weight loss, researchers in one study found there were no weight changes in rats given acai juice, and there are no published independent studies to substantiate the claim that acai supplements alone promote rapid weight loss.

Activated almondsactivated-almonds

Before chef Pete Evans made headlines with talk of activated almonds, products containing the ingredient and the kernel itself were piled high on health food store shelves. 

Almonds are a rich source of healthy fats and contain natural vitamin E, helpful for heart health. A handful of almonds eaten regularly as part of a healthy diet may reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and help with weight management. But is it worth paying extra for the activated type? 

According to accredited nutritionist Catherine Saxelby, the answer is no. Nuts for Life, the industry body for the Australian tree nut industry, says activation (presoaking) converts some of the starch in almonds to simple sugars and some of the protein to simple amino acids. As the activation theory goes, the broken-down nutrients are easier for the enzymes in our stomach to digest. As the science goes, there is almost no research on almonds to indicate whether or not activation improves their digestibility and nutrition.

Aloe veraaloe-vera

A cousin of the cactus, aloe vera is a substance derived from the clear “jelly” found in the inner part of the aloe plant leaf. Consumed for ailments such as osteoarthritis, bowel disease and stomach ulcers, as well as a general tonic, and used topically for burns, sunburn, frostbite and psoriasis, aloe has been a popular home remedy for years. 

While research has found topical use is possibly effective for psoriasis and other skin conditions, there is insufficient evidence to prove it works orally as a general tonic or for other claimed benefits. Beware – diarrhoea, caused by the laxative effect of ingested aloe, can decrease the absorption of many drugs.

Cacaocacao

Cacao (or cocoa) beans are technically not beans or legumes, but rather the seeds of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. Chocoholics may be thrilled to hear the cacao fruit is botanically classified as berry-like, but sadly it’s not as healthy as one when in the form of chocolate. While some of the favourable properties do turn up in the final product, so too does a great deal of sugar. 

Compared with other fruit powders, including acai, blueberry, cranberry and pomegranate juice, cocoa powder and dark chocolate have equivalent or greater levels of antioxidants. It is important to note that Dutch or Dutched cocoa has a severely diminished antioxidant capacity due to an alkalisation process used to mellow flavours. 

Including a sprinkle of raw cacao into a smoothie or munching on antioxidant-rich dark chocolate in small amounts, as part of a healthy diet, may mean a tastier meal while promoting cardiovascular health.

Chia seedschia-seeds

Believed to have been a staple in the ancient Aztec diet, chia seeds come from a desert plant that is a member of the mint family. A far cry from their Central American origins, chia is now being grown in the Kimberley region of WA. 

Low in carbs, high in fibre and an containing an impressive dose of omega-3 fatty acids, these tiny, unprocessed seeds can pack a nutritional punch when sprinkled on muesli or into smoothies or yoghurt. However, there’s little published evidence to substantiate claims made about chia’s ability to improve cardiovascular risk factors, such as by lowering cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure.

Chlorophyllchlorophyll

This chemical is the green pigment in leaves, and can also be found in spinach, asparagus, parsley, lettuce, green beans, celery and even brussels sprouts. Yet despite this, bottles of liquid chlorophyll have made their way into the fridge at health food shops, claiming to boost energy and general wellbeing, as well as being a tool to counteract acidity of processed foods. 

The US National Library of Medicine says that while chlorophyll is a non-poisonous ingredient, in rare cases it can cause loose bowel movements or stomach cramps. By regularly eating green vegetables such as those listed above, you can get the dietary chlorophyll intake comparable to the recommended three teaspoon dosage listed on both the Swisse and Grants of Australia liquid chlorophyll products.

Coconutcoconut

While coconut milk has long been a tasty addition to Thai cooking, coconut oil and water have popped back onto the scene with a raft of health claims – oil for its “good fats” and water for its high source of minerals, and ability to rehydrate and aid with weight loss. 

Coconut oil is 85% saturated fat, with an unsaturated content of just nine per cent. (By comparison, olive oil only has 16% saturated fat.) The Dietitians Association of Australia says while coconut water is unlikely to be harmful, it doesn’t have a high-nutrient content and there is little scientific evidence to support the wonder health drink claims. To learn more, read our story about coconut water products here. 

Goji berriesgoji-berries

Also known as wolfberries, these bright-red berries, native to China and the Himalayan region, are available as a juice and dried health food snacks and can also be found added to some chocolate and muesli bars. 

Marketed as a “life tonic”, weight-loss aid and even as one of the world’s “most powerful foods”, goji berries are high in antioxidants, particularly a carotenoid that may be associated with reducing the risk of age-related macular degeneration. 

Goji has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries for numerous conditions, but there are no large quality trials demonstrating that it works. In fact, it may decrease the liver’s ability to break down some medications, as well as interact with the anti-clotting warfarin. It is therefore not recommended for those who take medications changed by the liver, such as diazepam and ibuprofen, antihypertensive drugs and anti-diabetes drugs. Speak to your healthcare professional before deciding whether or not to use goji as a supplement.

Milk thistle

A flowering herb native to the Mediterranean region, milk thistle seeds contain silybin, an antioxidant believed to be the biologically active part of the herb.

Taken for liver disorders, lowering cholesterol levels, reducing insulin resistance in those with diabetes and reducing the growth of some cancer cells, laboratory studies have found milk thistle may have some liver-protective qualities, although there is insufficient evidence to rate its effectiveness against other ailments outside the lab.

 
 

 

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