The internet is awash with healthy living and eating advice. It seems like nowadays you can’t say you had a healthy breakfast if you didn’t sprinkle it with chia seeds or other superfood. The problem is most of these superfoods are exotic and come from places far away from Europe. Do we really need to eat berries from Tibet to stay healthy? What is the cost to the environment? These questions have been on my mind for a while and I have finally decided to investigate.
First thing to say is that ‘superfood’ is a marketing term and not a medical or nutritional one. It is meant to describe food stuff particularly rich in valuable nutrients or antioxidants. In many cases the health claims – like fighting cancer or heart disease – are not backed by scientific evidence.
I have selected three of the more popular superfoods and have investigated:
how the supply chain affects the environment?
are the health benefits backed by science?
what is a more local substitute?
These little crunchy seeds have taken Instagram and health food stores like a storm. They are tasty and easy to incorporate into any meal – soup, smoothie, breakfast cereal. They originate in Mexico and where highly praised by Aztecs. Chia seeds are a good source of calcium, omega 3 fatty acids and fiber. Though chia seeds are undisputedly a valuable addition to healthy diet, scientists have not found conclusive evidence that they prevent diseases. I have even come across some studies suggesting regular and long term consumption of chia seeds can be bad for you.
I did not manage to find any information about how farming chia seeds affects local environment or the farmers in poorer countries. Nevertheless, since they are mainly grown in South America and Australia consuming them in Europe is not very sustainable, considering the distance they have to travel.
What you can have instead:
good sources of calcium – dairy products, dried figs, white beans, kale, butternut squash, seaweed, sesame seeds, oranges, black eyed peas, all green leafy vegetables and legumes.
good sources of omega 3 fatty acids – flax seeds (and oil) – not suitable during pregnancy, hemp seeds, rapeseed oil (cold pressed), walnuts, organic milk, butternut squash
good sources of fiber – apples, pears, parsnips, carrots, broccoli, brussels sprouts, legumes, whole grains, flax seed, spinach
These little red berries most likely originate from Tibet and inner Mongolia, but are now commercially grown in China. They are prized for being rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, but they also contain a plethora of essential trace minerals. Studies claiming wonderful health benefits – like curing or preventing cancer, and increasing life expectancy – are not conclusive, because of small scale and using concentrated extracts rather than actual goji berries themselves.
In terms of environmental impact, just like chia seeds, goji berries are heavy on the air-miles due to their journey from China to Europe.
What you can have instead:
good sources of vitamin C – red and green peppers, kale, broccoli, strawberries, oranges, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, potatoes
good sources of antioxidants – blueberries, red kidney beans, artichoke, blackberry, prune, raspberry, strawberry, apples, plums, black beans, potatoes
This little seed came to the mainstream a few years ago and can now be easily bought in supermarkets. It originates from Bolivian Andes, where for centuries it has been one of local staple crops. It has great nutritional value due to containing complete protein, which makes it invaluable in plant based diets like veganism. Currently it is also prized for being gluten free.
The main problem with quinoa is that the high demand raises prices and the farmers who grow it – and local population of Bolivia – can no longer afford to buy it. This means malnutrition in the poorest parts of the country. The intensive farming methods, which have been employed to meet the demand, cause soil erosion. Before its ‘discovery’ by the superfood lovers quinoa would have been grown as part of crop rotation system (traditional method of changing crops every year and leaving the field fallow for a year to help soil regain nutrients).
Given all the above considerations I was very pleased to find British grown quinoa in the health isle of my local shop. This seems like a great option, as quinoa is a healthy addition to the diet and eating home-grown variety solves the moral and environmental issues.
What you can have instead:
good plant sources of complete protein – buckwheat, hemp seed, rice and beans (eaten together in one meal), hummus and pita, and many other combinations of beans and grains (think baked beans on toast)
Do we need superfoods to be healthy?
There are many superfoods on shelves of our shops and they all promise to make us healthy beyond belief. The truth is that nothing can substitute varied diet. Ideally products should be locally grown to ensure they contain maximum nutrients – the longer a crops has been harvested the less nutrients remain in the fruit or vegetable. There are not many shortcuts in life and eating superfoods isn’t one. So if we don’t really need them to be healthy, why destroy the environment and lives of people in far away lands?