We love to love superfoods! These healthy food options are seriously everywhere. Google the word superfoods and you will find tons of lists boasting nutritionally dense foodie superstars and ways to add them to your diet. But are superfoods really that super?
What if some of them aren’t as awesome 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)…
Let’s answer the question “are superfoods really that super?” and shed some light on 3 popular superfoods with troubling potential side effects:
Are Superfoods Really That Super?
Fruits and vegetables are all super in their own right. Nature makes some pretty wonderful goodness, don’t you think? But what makes one stand out from the crowd? How does a food rise through the ranks to be classified as a superfood?
The answer, my friend, is nothing.
Because there is no universal criteria that defines a food’s superness. The word “superfood” itself is often used more as a marketing term than an actual truthful indication of a foods awesomeness.
But don’t take my word for it…
When asked to weigh in on the “are superfoods really that super” debate, Despina Hyde, a registered dietician with the weight management program at New York University’s Langone Medical Center has this to say:
“Superfoods don’t have their own food group. As a dietician, I think ‘superfood’ is more of a marketing term for foods that have health benefits” (source)
And hey, I’m all for health benefits! But that’s something most foods bring to the table. Which means that a foods superhero status is really in the eye of the beholder (or marketer).
While that may seem a little harmless, when you really consider it, there are a few problems to consider.
According to Ms. Hyde, the issue with this label is that it makes us feel like we can eat an unlimited amount of the food in question without consequence.
“When we label these foods as ‘super’ and ‘healthy,’ people think they can eat them in unlimited quantities. But you do have to be cautious of the amount you eat […]” (source)
And Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St George’s Hospital in London, would definitely answer the question “are superfoods really that super?” with a huge NO.
She has some pretty negative feels on superfoods to share:
“The term “superfoods” is at best meaningless and at worst harmful” (source)
And even still, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (and so many other good books) isn’t a fan of this term either…
“If you’re concerned about your health, then you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because the whole ideology of superfoods is misleading, for consumers and scientists alike.” (source)
Which again brings us back to our question… are superfoods really that super?
And the answer really depends on the situation. So called “superfoods” like kale, blueberries and squash obviously have a lot of goodness to offer. I mean, I’ll shut the kale up before I say anything mean about that beautiful curly leaf.
But when an unregulated marketing term starts to become a trusted way to identify something’s nutritional value we can run into some big issues.
I think it’s so important to remember to be skeptical, ask questions and do your research. And if something seems too good to be true… well, it probably is.
Which is why I wanted to shine the light on 3 popular superfoods that really aren’t as super as they seem.
But before we take a peek. There’s a ton to digest so I made you a little ‘Are Superfoods Really That Super?’ printable fact sheet. It puts everything in point form so that you can easily refer to it and make informed healthy diet decisions. You can get it right here:
Are Superfoods Really That Super? Maybe Not Spirulina:
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 crown it as a 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 might have you asking why I would want to shed some light on it while we ask the important question: are superfoods really that super?
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 of iodine is 150 micrograms, it’s safe that say that that is one serious 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 on the regular increases your risk of thyroid dysfunction, especially in those that are vulnerable (children, the elderly, those with thyroid diseases, etc.). It may also up your risk of thyroid cancer and autoimmune thyroiditis (source). Can I get a hell no?
Trust me, you really don’t want to develop an autoimmune thyroid disease. It’s not fun…
If you already have an autoimmune thyroid disease (Graves Disease or Hashimotos) or hyperthyroidism, excess iodine is not a good idea.
Autoimmune thyroid disease warriors (myself included) 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. That’s one big pile of suckage. (source 1, source 2)
This is something I have an unfortunate personal experience with…
After my first Graves Disease remission a friend introduced me to roasted seaweed snacks. And man were they ever delicious. I was hopelessly in love with that incredible flavour. And drooling over the memory as we speak.
I thought I was doing something awesome for myself, because I kept hearing over and over again how “superfoods” like seaweed and spirulina were good for your thyroid. I thought I was being kind to my body.
Eventually a relapse hit me like a Mack Truck.
While I, of course, know that eating too much iodine wasn’t the only factor in this relapse, it definitely played a roll.
My endocrinologist thankfully asked if anything has changed in my diet and I shared my love of all things seaweed. She was horrified and advised me to stay as far away from those crunchy delights as possible. It was a sad day for my taste buds, but a happy day for my health. Which is totally a fair trade.
I was back in remission three months later! Booyah! But I also started to wonder: if I was so easily swayed by popular health claims and a “super” status I definitely couldn’t be alone… are superfoods really that super?
You really can have too much of a good thing.
It turns out that my experience with iodine overload isn’t overly strange! It’s actually one of the unregulated superfood issues I brought up earlier. Thinking we can go H.A.M. on something just because it’s seen as super can be problematic.
Our friend Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St George’s Hospital in London agrees:
“Just because certain foods are bursting with a particular vitamin or nutrient does not mean they will be especially good for you. It might seem that eating foods rich in nutrients is just common sense, but the truth is that our bodies have a requirement for sufficient nutrients. If our bodies have an excess of nutrients and cannot store them, they will essentially go to waste. Or, more worryingly, if certain nutrients can’t be excreted in sufficient levels, they could cause serious cellular damage. Overloading our bodies is not a healthy or natural thing to do.” (source)
So where do we go from here?
It can be hard to know how much iodine you’re actually downing when you eat foods 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. And know that spirulina’s superfood status doesn’t mean that we should eat it with fervor.
It’s always really important to practice balance. Less is more! Trust me friends, your thyroid health is worth it.
Are Superfoods Really That Super? Maybe Not Soy:
Soy is one popular superfood! And it has a really special place in the hearts of vegans (it’s a great plant source of protein after all). Plus, 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.
Which again might be making you wonder why it’s even a part of this post asking “are superfoods really that super?”
When it comes to Soy 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).
The mixed results have made soy a bit controversial. When asking “are superfoods really that super?” it’s so hard to decide where soy stands. (source)
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.
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. Kind of a big bummer if you ask me.
I mean, if we want an answer to “are superfoods really that super?” I think it’s easy to say no when the food in question is overly processed. What do you think?
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. Let’s just say that Graves Disease has me loving my thyroid big time. And I want you to do the same. That gorgeous little gland is a big deal!
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 around soy.
If avoiding soy completely isn’t appealing (I get it), 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.
A REALLY important note on soy baby formula.
Unfortunately, babies fed exclusively soy baby formula are far more likely to develop an autoimmune thyroid diseases later in life. There are healthier (less risky) options out there; please, please, 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. Balance, as always, is key!
And if you really want to experience all of 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.
Are Superfoods Really That Super? Maybe Not Greek Yogurt:
This thick creamy yogurt 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 since we’re still diving in deep into the “are superfoods really that super” question, there’s a few Greek yogurt 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 (we’ll talk more on that in a second). But some companies skip that process entirely. Dealing with acid whey isn’t that easy after all. So shortcuts can be really desirable.
So how do they fake it?
Thickening agents like modified corn starch, carrageenan, or guar gum can easily 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 at all. Total bummer, right? (source)
What does this mean for you?
The biggest downside is you’re not getting what 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, thickening agents 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 (preferably plant based) 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 I mentioned that 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 just 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.
Who knew Greek yogurt could be so problematic?
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. (source)
Acid whey use on the farm is pretty 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 possible issue too. Not sounding so hot, eh?
Are super foods really that super when their environmental impact kind of sucks?
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.
The demand for Greek yogurt isn’t going anywhere… which means, we really need options, and fast!
There’s a couple of other issues to consider.
Greek yogurt creates another ethical quandary. It’s popularity has increased the demand for milk. And remember, 3 to 4 ounces of milk are needed to create just 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 actually 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 created by yogurt. (source)
Unfortunately, it also increases the environmental impact of dairy farming.
Dairy farming produces greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes 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 the end result means hurting the environment and reducing animal wellfare, then my answer to the question”are superfoods really that super?” would be a total no. But thankfully there’s a way to prevent that!
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 and make an awesome difference.
Buying alternative yogurts (even if only on occasion) can play a small role in reducing the waste too.
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 delish!
Thanks for hangin’ in there with me. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t you worry! I put all of these points together in a free ‘Are Superfoods Really That Super?’ fact sheet that you can print out and refer to while you create and/or maintain your wonderful healthy lifestyle. Download your goodness by entering your deets below. Yass!
So are superfoods really that super? What do you think? Are there any not so super superfoods that you’d add to the list? Did anything in this article surprise you? Share your awesome thoughts with us in the comments.
Health and love,
Thought of the day: Asking questions and remaining curious are 2 awesome forms of self-care.
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