We love superfoods! These healthy food options are everywhere. Google the word superfoods and you will find tons of lists boasting nutritionally dense foodie superstars and how to add them to your diet.
But what if some of them aren’t as super as they seem? What if a few of the most popular superfoods out there come with some downsides that aren’t as well known? Sometimes if it sounds too good to be true… well, you know how that saying goes.
So, at the risk of bursting your bubble (sorry)…
Here are 3 superfoods that might not be as super as you think.
Spirulina is a beautiful Blue Green Algae that’s pretty freaking popular in the health food market. And who can blame anyone for wanting to grant it a spot among superfoods? It’s gorgeous colours alone are a total win. I’ll admit to staring longingly at several spirulina laden creations, adoring the amazing, natural blue or green hues.
But it isn’t just about the colour. Spirulina also boasts high levels of protein, iron, magnesium and potassium (with minimal calories). And there’s a fair amount of calcium, vitamins A, C, B6 and fiber in there too. Which is all pretty magnificent… until you consider the one potential issue…
Spirulina can be ridiculously high in iodine.
While levels may vary, spirulina can potentially have more than 4,500 micrograms of iodine per serving (with some reports stating a possibility of over 15,000 micrograms [source]). Considering the fact that the daily recommended intake is 150 micrograms, it’s safe that say that that is one bucket load of iodine.
Why is extra iodine a problem?
Iodine’s kind of a big deal. It plays a role in thyroid function. Thyroid hormones can’t really happen without it. And since those bad boys have a say in the speed of every cell in your body, it’s safe to say that iodine is an important part of your diet.
But it’s all about balance. You really don’t need much. 150 micrograms a day is the perfect amount for the average adult. And the tolerable upper intake is 1,100 micrograms a day (source).
What happens if you push it?
We all know that too much of a good thing isn’t always a good idea. And when it comes to iodine, that saying can hold pretty true.
Overdoing it in the iodine department regularly increases your risk of thyroid dysfunction, especially in those that are vulnerable (children, the elderly, those with thyroid diseases, etc.). It may also increase the risk of thyroid cancer and autoimmune thyroiditis (source).
And if you already have an autoimmune thyroid disease (Graves Disease or Hashimotos) or hyperthyroidism, excess iodine is not a good idea.
Autoimmune thyroid diseases actually don’t respond well to iodine levels the average adult can handle (source). Get too friendly with iodine and we’re talking potential relapse (if you’re in remission), a reduction in the effectiveness of your medication and/or worsening symptoms (source 1, source 2) Learn more about thyroid diseases and excess iodine here.
So where do we go from here?
It can be hard to know for certain how much iodine you’re downing when you eat superfoods like spirulina. Unless the food has been fortified with iodine, it doesn’t legally need to be listed on a food label. So finding a spirulina source that’s lower on the iodine scale is near impossible.
Unfortunately, if you’re like me and have an autoimmune thyroid disease or hyperthyroidism, spirulina (or anything high in iodine) is not your friend. Pretty blue smoothies are not worth the risk of a relapse or worsening symptoms. Sorry <3.
But if you’re in completely good health, small amounts on occasion are unlikely to harm. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist if you have any health concerns or need guidance.
However, if superfoods that are super high in iodine, like spirulina, play a role in your diet, it’s really important that you practice balance. Less is more! Trust me, your thyroid health is worth it.
Soy is one of the popular superfoods and has a coveted place in the hearts of vegans (it’s a great plant source of protein after all). And in the nutrient department, it truly delivers.
We’ve got folate, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, iron and fiber. And fair amounts of copper, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, and omega-3 fatty acids too. Some studies have even shown moderate cardiovascular protection and cancer prevention properties.
But there’s one big problem. Tons and tons of mixed evidence. And here’s why:
Not all soy is created equal.
When studies take a peek at the goodness of soy in the east, they tend to come up with fantastic results. But when they look at soy consumption in the west they don’t always see the magic… in fact, they often start to see problems (including the potential increase of certain cancers, like breast cancer [source]). The mixed results have made soy a bit controversial.
So why the mixed results?
One big factor is a matter of processing. In Asia they tend to enjoy soy in it’s whole, nutrient dense form. And they often take it a step further and ferment it (which only makes the nutritional goodness more awesome). Fermentation makes soy even more digestible and increases nutrient absorption. Fermented foods are truly an important food group
But here in the West we tend to enjoy soy very differently. Soy products sold in North America are rarely fermented. And it’s often genetically modified and highly processed. Soy beans are cracked, dehulled and crushed. If that didn’t already seem like enough, certain nutrients are then extracted and isolated. What’s left behind isn’t comparable to the whole food we started out with (source).
There’s also the potential issue of soy’s effect on thyroid function.
Of course I had to bring up the lovely thyroid again. The isoflavones in soy affect thyroid function in two different ways. Firstly, they interfere with TPO (thyroid peroxidase), an enzyme that helps iodine in it’s quest to assist with thyroid hormone production. And secondly, soy isoflavones also pull a double whammy and affect iodine uptake (source).
This combined with an iodine deficiency, digestive issues, liver problems or autoimmune thyroid diseases like Graves Disease or Hashimotos can spell trouble. If you do have any of these issues, it’s best to be cautious.
If avoiding soy completely isn’t appealing, work with your doctor or health care provider to see if it’s a healthy option for you. And try and stick to occasional, small amounts of whole, fermented soy.
An important note on soy baby formula.
Unfortunately, babies fed exclusively soy baby formula are far more likely to develop an autoimmune thyroid disease later in life. There are healthier (less risky) options out there; please avoid soy based baby formulas (source).
Where do we go from here?
If you aren’t a baby and don’t have an allergy or any of the health issues listed above, soy can potentially play a healthy role in your diet. But if you really want to experience the goodness that has soy hailed as a superfood, stick to whole, unprocessed soy beans, preferably in a fermented form. Tempeh, miso and fermented tofu are all healthy, nutritionally dense options that will love you back.
This thick creamy texture is so popular all the other superfoods out there are probably jealous. With less lactose and twice the protein of other yogurts, it’s not hard to talk up Greek yogurt. And hey, we’ve also got calcium, potassium, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12. It sounds like it’s all win. But there’s a few problems to consider.
You might not be getting the goodness you’re paying for.
That thick creamy texture every loves? That’s created by straining out the acid whey. But some companies skip that process entirely. Dealing with acid whey isn’t that easy after all. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
So how do they fake it?
Thickening agents like modified corn starch, carrageenan, or guar gum can do the trick. And added milk protein or whey concentrates can also help get that Greek yogurt texture. And yes, they are legally still allowed to call it ‘Greek yogurt’. There’s currently no rules preventing someone from using that name, even if the end result technically isn’t traditional Greek yogurt (source). Total bummer, right?
What does this mean for you?
The biggest downside is you’re not getting the superfood you signed up for. When Greek yogurt isn’t so Greek, you’re going to end up with a lot less protein. And when you throw flavourings and sugar into the mix, you’re healthy breakfast is suddenly not so healthy (and a bit more like dessert).
If you want the real thing, look for a product with milk and live active cultures as the main ingredients. And try and avoid added sugars, flavourings and thickening agents (you can easily add fruit and a little maple syrup at home).
But what about acid whey?
Greek yogurt might be popular because it’s thick and creamy, but achieving that texture isn’t as simple as you might think. Remember how you need to strain out the acid whey in order to create a true Greek yogurt? Well, it takes a lot of milk to make it happen. You need 3 to 4 ounces of milk to create 1 ounce of traditional Greek yogurt.
What’s left behind? A pesky by-product know as acid whey. Unfortunately, this stuff is a toxic waste and we are scrambling to find ways to deal with it.
Thankfully the laws around acid whey dumping are pretty strict. You can’t dump that stuff anywhere near a waterway or in a typical landfill. Why? Because if acid whey seeps into the water it depletes the oxygen levels, ultimately killing the aquatic life.
But don’t release that sigh of relief just yet. This has actually happened! In 2008, acid whey was accidentally released into a creek in Ohio, killing 5,400 fish over 1.5 miles (source). The need for strict regulations and careful precautions when dealing with acid whey is very clear.
There are no industry wide statistics on where all of the acid whey is going.
Chobani, a New York Greek yogurt company, claims that they sell up to 70% of their acid whey waste to farmers to be used mostly in fertilizer and feed. But that isn’t as simple a solution as you might like. Use is limited; too much acid whey in the feed waters it down. And there’s also the issue of potentially irritating the cows’ digestive system and health. Oh, and run-off from the fertilizer is a potential issue too. Not sounding so hot, eh?
What can we do with all of this toxic waste?
Scientists are working hard to find ways to extract nutrients from acid whey for commercial use. The hope is that they can properly isolate nutrients like protein and lactose and use them in products like baby formula, protein powders, medications and processed foods.
While this may sound a little cringe worthy (especially when we consider what happened to the nutritional value of soy products after nutrients were heavily processed and isolated), something’s got to give. You can learn more about the acid whey conundrum here.
The demand for Greek yogurt isn’t going anywhere… which means, we really need options, and fast!
And there’s a couple of other issues to consider.
Even if we forget about the environmental issues (which we really shouldn’t), the demand for Greek yogurt creates another ethical quandary. The popularity of this product has increased the demand for milk. And remember, 3 to 4 ounces of milk are needed to create only 1 ounce of Greek yogurt.
And since supply needs to meet demand, Greek yogurt has actually changed some of the laws that regulate dairy farming! Who thought your go-to breakfast yogurt could be so political?
New York state created a new law in 2013, increasing small dairy farm herd caps from 199 to 299. This cut costs and made it easier for farmers to meet increasing dairy demands (source).
Unfortunately, it also increases the environmental impact of dairy farming.
Dairy farming produces greenhouse gas emissions, and those contribute to climate change. If manure and fertilizer aren’t handled properly, local water resources can be damaged. And unsustainable dairy farming can destroy our beautiful prairies, wetlands, and forests (source).
And hey, the cows don’t have it easy either.
Sadly, we shouldn’t forget about the cruelty found in many large scale (and even small scale) dairy productions (source). Increasing the dairy demand increases the amount of dairy cows needed. This in turn ups our environmental impact and ethical concerns that are unavoidable in industrial farming practices.
And remember, most of that dairy will go to waste. Is it really worth it?
If you want Greek yogurt to be a part of your diet, you can still do something to make a difference. Try and buy from small scale, local farmers. This gives you the opportunity to support your local economy and ask important questions. Find out how they deal with their acid whey. Learn more about the conditions and treatment of the animals producing your milk. You have the power to support ethical farming practices.
But buying alternative yogurts (even if only on occasion) can play a small role in reducing the waste.
Try and enjoy Greek yogurt in moderation. There are tons of other options out there that don’t cause quite the environmental impact. And hey, don’t knock dairy free alternatives until you’ve tried them. Coconut milk yogurt is the only way I roll.
What not so super superfoods would you add to the list? Did anything above surprise you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Health and love,
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