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Superfood – sustainable food trend or just a hype?

By 24. February 2019 February 28th, 2019 No Comments

Superfoods are on everyone’s lips – not only figuratively, but also literally. But what exactly is behind the nuts, berries & pseudo-cereals that are supposed to give us superpowers? Do they keep what they promise? What about sustainability? And where does the great resonance in society come from?

Photo by Harvard T.H. Chan

Almost 3.6 million pictures reveal themselves when you search under the hashtag #superfood on Instagram. Google even spits out as many as 226 million posts. And no TV show with a culinary program can without content about goji berries, chia seeds or avocado anymore. Superfoods are on everyone’s lips – not only figuratively, but also literally. But what is behind one of the greatest nutritional phenomena of our time? Or should we better say: Hypes?

The term “superfood” is neither new nor protected nor uniformly defined

If you take a look back at the beginnings, you will notice that superfoods aren’t really a totally new thing. The first mention goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the US company United Fruit Company ran a large advertising campaign for the bananas that were already imported on a large scale at that time. Not only are bananas extremely nutritious and easy to digest, but they are also available everywhere, comparatively cheap and naturally packaged – hence a superfood they told their existing and potential customers! That’s why you would be able to add them to your cereals for breakfast, your salad for lunch or even your meat dish for dinner. But what was already difficult to grasp back then hasn’t really changed to this day.

One thing is clear: the term “superfood” is not protected. There is also no official or legally binding definition. The Oxford Dictionary defines superfoods as “nutrient-rich foods that are particularly beneficial to health and well-being”. And this is probably the very reason why we’re allowed to find out about a new superfood every week through company advertisements, lifestyle magazines or our neighbourhood foodie.

The avocado, in particular, has had an almost unbelievable career. One could also say that we’re living – from a culinary point of view – in the decade of the avocado. Hardly any café and its breakfast menu can do without avocado toast or avocado smoothie. Within just two years, European consumption has risen by 65 percent. And at first glance this doesn’t seem surprising, since it’s rich in vitamins, potassium and above all unsaturated fatty acids.

Domestic “superfood” scores points in terms of health and sustainability

But the Irish star chef JP McMahon doesn’t call the pear-shaped berry fruit “Mexico’s blood diamond” completely without reason – the increased demand in western societies has lead to catastrophic production conditions in the global south. Mexico, for example, as the world champion avocado exporter, is now suffering not only from brutal gangs blackmailing farmers and packers for protection money, but also from considerable health damage to the local population due to the use of pesticides and fertilizers; not to mention the environmental consequences of massive deforestation for the plantations and the high water consumption for cultivation.

„But the Irish star cook JP McMahon doesn’t call the pear-shaped berry fruit ‘Mexico’s blood diamond’ without reason.“

 

But not only the avocado is more than questionable from an ecological and social point of view. Other highly praised superfoods such as quinoa, chia seeds, goji berries and acai berries are – for us – also one thing above all else at the end of the day: exotic. In other words, they have several thousand kilometers on their back before they end up on our supermarket shelves. On the one hand, this is a great development, as globalization brings an unprecedented diversity to our shopping basket. On the other hand, however, our rising consumption also contributes to distribution conflicts, rising prices for the local population and ecological damage caused by extensive monocultures in the producing countries.

Back to the vague definition of superfoods: So they’re a matter of promoting health and well-being. But how good are the exotic superfoods advertised in the media and prominently on supermarket shelves really? And aren’t there possibly local foods that have a similarly beneficial nutrient profile?

Let’s look at another export hit whose sales have multiplied by a factor of 100,000 in just four years: chia seeds. Whether in bread, biscuits, energy bars, muesli or pudding – Chia seeds are everywhere. And the health promise is no small thing: the inconspicuous small grains aren’t only considered to be very healthy, but are even supposed to help lose weight.

But if you compare, for example, the high omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibres or protein content with the local linseed, the latter don’t have to hide at all. On the contrary: the nutrient balance is sometimes even more advantageous – with a much better ecological balance. And with less than one seventh of the purchase price of chia seeds, linseeds are even way cheaper.

Own illustration. Data source: Zentrum der Gesundheit

You could do this kind of comparison of exotic superfood and domestic alternatives with a bunch of other examples. And no matter whether goji berry vs. blueberry, acerola vs. sea buckthorn, quinoa vs. millet or spirulina vs. wheatgrass – local superfoods are always on a par in terms of health benefits, and in addition much more sustainable and cheaper due to the regional production.  

Health, Individualisation & mobility as central drivers

So why is there still an increased demand for the miraculous exotics from faraway countries? Here we need to take a step back and look at social change. The central driver of this is the health megatrend, which is fundamentally shifting our diet towards healthier foods. Particularly in German-speaking countries, eating is increasingly taking place in the tension area between enjoyment, ethics and health. According to the TK survey, Germans now consider “healthy” to be the most important aspect of their diet; two years ago, the answer most often mentioned was “tasty”. Aspects such as “low in calories”, “cheap” or “fast” are now far behind.

In addition, there is the megatrend of mobility, which is not only allowing our society to travel increasingly with data due to digitalization, but also physically in connection with new working environments and life models. And so the traditional three meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner often no longer fit in with everyday life, which has become much more mobile, connected and individualized as a result. Superfoods promise to be the ideal solution, as they are often used in snacks that are ready-to-eat.

Snacking industry as trend epicentre of the change in our eating culture

Overall, it seems, the snacking industry has become the trend epicentre of change in our eating culture due to modern lifestyles. But today’s snacks are no longer comparable to the snacks of the past. A few years ago, snacks were about rewards, exceptions or special occasions (and therefore sweet and fatty treats), but today hunger, energy and nutrients are in the foreground. Freshness, naturalness and self-optimization are therefore increasingly finding their way into snack offerings. And “New Snacking” is thus becoming an important food trend, especially in urban everyday culture, as a result of the central megatrends of our time.

„Freshness, naturalness and self-optimization are increasingly finding their way into snack offerings.“

 

Superfoods, on the other hand, are not a food trend per se, and this has to be expressly distinguished at this point. However, advertising and marketing departments know how to skillfully present the expectations and social needs placed on them in terms of health, flexibility and individuality. But at the end of the day, they are microtrends or hypes in product worlds that take place against the background of larger food trends. Whether new snacking, functional food or clean eating – consumers are increasingly asking for products that enable them to find healthy and high-quality eating solutions. But as we now know, this doesn’t always require exotic products from overseas with the most flashy advertising slogans.