The hijacking of nutrition

A myriad of claims feed contemporary society that clean eating can make you live longer, decrease cancer risk, or boost energy. There is a long history of marketing products that capitalize on teaching people to eat right, which itself transcends the dietary advice itself. Teaching people to eat right can alleviate their morals, improve their characters and solve some of the most pressing social problems facing them at the time. The goodness of good citizenship suggests that owning a good juicer, for example, exercises personal responsibility and will empower you in making informed and rational choices in the market place in the pursuit of good health.

‘What we eat has changed more in the last forty years than in the previous forty thousand’, declared Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation. The current attention on clean eating and superfoods has likely been encouraged by a rapidly growing public interest in food and health, fuelled by a desire to be healthier, in the pursuit of optimal wellness, or as a remedy for degenerative disease. With 20% of the population at high risk for developing Diabetes Type 2, and 50% of new diagnoses over the next decade expected, more Australians are searching for superior solutions from food.

Cast your mind back to Sunday 4th November 2012. Can’t recall what you were doing? Perhaps nursing a Derby Day hangover? Let me help you, the day heralded the demise of the humble activated almond when a celebrity chef declared his degustation on a plate for a Sunday rag mag, all dished up with a jolly good dose of dietary dogma. I recall it clearly because the PR girl battling the barrage of cyber slinging was sitting opposite me in my food as medicine cooking demonstration at a leading health retreat.

When the methodology of activating nuts arose, she blushed and went on to confess that she was defending this nutty scandal. More importantly, much of the increasingly pretentious menu reflected what we were successfully feeding our health retreat guests, albeit not so publicly. For example, we infused our clientele with apple cider vinegar, cultured vegetables, house-made coconut yoghurt and ginger tea. Their 3pm snack or morning tea often consisted of activated almonds, yet we felt no need to shout this from the spa roof top, for fear of triggering a superfood Twitter hashtag frenzy.

Looking back, it is all quite hilarious, however in the eyes of the mainstream healthy eating often comes with an entrée of suspicion and a main course of mockery, and there in lies the issue: it scares the horses. Too much dietetic dogma upsets the masses, because for such an integral component of life, we are all still very confused about what to eat, which is no doubt why so many of us eat for comfort, not speed.

For the record, soaking nuts and seeds helps to increase the individual water content. Once they are soaked for 4-8 hours depending on the nut or seed, strain off the soaking water. Pat dry with a paper towel and keep refrigerated to add to salads over summer. To activate nuts and seeds, place the soaked nuts on to racks of a dehydrator. Dehydrate seeds for 8 hours or overnight. Larger nuts such as almonds (above) will take about 48 hours to activate until they are crunchy.

Who makes a superfood super?

Global media is full of reports of ultra-healthy foods, from blueberries and beetroot to cacao and chia seeds. Often articles about superfoods claim to reflect the latest scientific evidence, and assure readers that eating these foods will provide ‘health kicks’, strong immunity and youthfulness. However, actual evidence concerning the benefits of these foods is harder to identify.

A Google search of the term ‘Superfood’ generates almost 10 million results, the majority of which are sourced from media organizations, health and nutrition websites and companies selling health-related supplements. For example, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a superfood is defined as a type of food that is rich in nutrients and extremely beneficial for health and overall well-being. On the other hand, the Merriam-Webster dictionary , does not allude to the health benefits of superfoods and simply defines them as foods that contain high quantities of vitamins, minerals, nutrients, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Notwithstanding these definitions, broadly speaking, a superfood is generally perceived to be a type of food that has a higher nutritional density than most other food products.

There are about 40 substances the National Institutes of Health consider nutrients, mostly vitamins like A, B, D, K and E, along with trace minerals and certain fats and chemicals. But this sidesteps this whole group of compounds that we’ve come to think of as health-protective, like the bioflavonoids and the polyphenols and other antioxidants, which show promise in preventing disease, but are not fully understood.

While the use of the term superfood has been recorded as far back as the beginning of the 20th century, it has only recently become popular within the last fifteen years the USA, and in the past five years in Australia. The term is often used to grab your attention or sell you something, so I would say, buyer beware. Even for foods that have been studied, the data is modest, slim or none at all. In Australia, the clean eating trend is predominantly driven by social media, food bloggers, nutritionists and marketers. However, the definition menu varies greatly.

The pursuit of good health & the politics of good food.

Good, natural, wholesome foodstuffs have successfully nourished the human race for millennia. They may have the best flavours, the best textures and the highest nutritional values. From a nutrition supplement perspective marketing campaigns suggest that consumers who purchase clean eating ingredients reap better health for the consumer.  These foods boast superior health benefits to the consumer, however the claims are often unsubstantiated with scientific evidence of efficacy.

Dietary ideals have changed very much over the last century, just as ideals of what being a good citizen is. However, the relationship between dietary ideals and social ideals has remained consistent. Historically a good diet is one that provides that most nutrients, the most energy for work at the least possible cost. In 2014 a US study developed a classification scheme that defined national US nutrition guidelines that emphasize consumption of what they refer to as ‘powerhouse’ fruits and vegetables (PFV). These foods are strongly associated with reduced chronic disease risk; yet efforts to define PFV are lacking.

The consumer demand for the transparency of ingredients has never before seen such traction with the quest for authenticity about where our food comes from is gaining momentum. Do health food stakeholders have a duty of care when it comes to labelling their products, and ultimately decides if an ingredient is superior? Of course they do, and to be crystal clear, it is illegal to make health claims on products in Australia.

Sam’s luscious beetroot carpaccio recipe  Image Nelly le Comte

Quantum physics vs quinoa

Over the last two decades in Australia, we have seen a flight of new health foods, starting with wheatgrass in the mid nineties, to quinoa and sea vegetables, Goji berries, raw cacao, spirulina, acai, maca – ultimately arriving at Peak Kale. In the process of developing a theory I examined who decides what is a superfood, it is necessary to examine the scientific evidence that corroborates the classification of certain foods as superfoods to determine the veracity of possibly hyperbolic media reports.

For instance, blueberries are commonly referred to as superfoods and have been analyzed by many scientists who are keen to determine their true nutritional value. Blueberries contain high levels of antioxidant plant compounds, anthocyanins in particular, which reportedly play a key role in slowing the growth of or completely eradicating cancerous cells in the colon. Other studies indicate that blueberries contain high levels of other antioxidants that have been proven to delay the aging process and have been shown to reverse the loss of memory in rat test subjects.

Molecules that safeguard the body from dangerous free radicals are referred to as antioxidants. The main sources of free radicals in the body are alcohol and cigarette smoke, though free radicals are also generated naturally by the body’s metabolic system. If there are an excessively high number of free radicals in the body, oxidative stress may occur and this in turn may cause damage to cells and prompt the onset of unfavourable conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Several other types of fruit are classified as superfoods, such as pomegranates and acai berries. Scientists have found that acai berry pulp has strong antioxidant properties. However, the positive impact of these antioxidants has not yet been proven in human test subjects. In terms of pomegranates, it has been discovered that the juice of the fruit can help reduce blood pressure on a temporary basis.  Pomegranates may also lower oxidative stress in those whose immune systems have not been compromised. This is particularly noteworthy as high blood pressure and oxidative stress are key triggers of heart disease.

Similarly, beetroot has also been classified as a superfood on account of its ability to reduce blood pressure and reduce the risk of blood clots through the conversion of nitrates into nitric oxide. It has also been claimed that cocoa with its high density of flavonoids can lower the threat of heart disease by reducing blood pressure and increasing blood vessel elasticity. Salmon, along with other types of oily fish, is also considered a superfood on account of new evidence that its omega 3 content can reduce the threat of heart issues in high-risk patients and also reduce the joint pain suffered by people who have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Increasingly, popular clean eating campaigns encourage consumers to try exotic powders; potions, tonics and treats that are often imported from far away destinations. Compared to every day fruit and vegetables, the marketing campaigns for clean eating often portray magical potions unearthed in wild jungles in remote lush regions, with happy workers in sustainable or fair trade working cooperatives.

As with food trends that urge people to consider sustainable food practice, food ethics – such as fair trade certifications – the clean eating trend promotes appeal to ethical consumers and health advocates. The phrase clean eating is becoming increasingly utilized amongst healthy food lovers, yoga students and foodies around the world. However, at this point there is no clear definition of what a superfood actually means and the scientific, evidence-based research, is either conflicting, curative, or completely unsubstantiated.

About the Author

Le Cordon Bleu Master, Chef Samantha Gowing put food as medicine on the map in Australia by using her unique blend of nutrition, fine dining and business expertise. Sam has worked for nearly 20 years with people all over the world on improving their health and wellbeing as Australia’s leading spa chef and an award-winning clinical nutritionist.  She is renowned for her nutritional wisdom – and for being a powerful influencer among healthy lifestyle audiences. Her Byron Bay Cooking School and global wellness company Gowings Food Health Wealth creates culinary programs for luxury hotels, spas and health retreats worldwide. FHW offers dynamic wellness business solutions that help food and health entrepreneurs create successful and sustainable businesses and has paved the way for the new genre of wellness enthusiasts since 2000.

Sam is available for clinical consults, cooking classes, corporate events and keynote speaking.

Call or SMS 0411 852 387 Click here to email

Please note: No almonds were hurt during the activating process.

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