01.Not so super
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
and blood pressure.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.