Could superfoods be the answer to all your health-related issues? Supermarket shelves are groaning under the weight of products extolling their nutritional values, and over the last few years, consumers have been keen to try out these highly touted snacks. But will the trend continue?
A study released last by market research company Mintel shows a massive 202 per cent increase globally between 2011 and 2015 in the number of new food and drink products launched containing the terms ‘superfood’, ‘superfruit’, or ‘supergrain’. In 2015 alone there was a 36 per cent rise in the number of food and drink products launched globally featuring these terms. In 2015, the US played host to the most ‘super’ food and drink launches (30 per cent), followed by Australia (10 per cent), Germany (seven per cent), the UK (six per cent) and Canada (six per cent).
These launches tie into a growing general interest in ‘healthy eating’, with further research by Mintel showing a demand for nutritious products. According to the research, over seven in 10 consumers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain agree that health-promoting benefits of natural foods, for instance fruit and vegetables, are preferable to the added benefits of functional foods.
What defines a food as super? While there is no legal definition, according to the NHS: “Foods that have been elevated to superfood status in recent years include those rich in antioxidants (such as beta-carotene, vitamins A, C, E, flavanoids and selenium) and omega-3 fatty acids. Antioxidants are chemicals thought to protect against the harmful effects of free radicals, which are chemicals naturally produced in every living cell and known to cause cell damage.”
Stephanie Mattucci, Global Food Science Analyst at Mintel, adds: “The popularity of ‘super’ products is clear as food and drink manufacturers globally are tapping into a demand for these nutritionally dense ingredients. But superfoods are not only limited to food and drink, they are regularly springing up in the beauty, health and hygiene and pet food aisles as a result of today’s consumers becoming much more aware of what they are putting into and onto their bodies.”
So which ‘superfoods’ are likely to be popular this year?
One of the biggest food categories to see a boost thanks to this growing interest is ‘ancient grains’. These include freekeh, millet, farro, and teff. The recent trend towards a wheat-free diet has resulted in a growing number of products containing the ‘supergrains’ ancient grains. Additionally, 30 per cent of UK pasta consumers say that pasta made with ancient grains, for instance quinoa, is healthier than regular pasta. And whilst quinoa and buckwheat have all become household names in recent years, it’s chia which has seen the biggest rise in usage. Between 2014 and 2015, there was a 70 per cent increase in the percentage of food and drink products launched containing chia, whilst the percentage of food and drink products containing teff rose by 31 per cent. Meanwhile, the percentage of food and drink products containing quinoa rose by 27 per cent.
According to Stephanie: “Desire for healthier, less refined alternatives to wheat has fuelled the rediscovery of ancient grains. Flavourful and nutrient-dense ancient grains have begun to change the negative perception of some carbohydrates by leveraging their nutritional profile and rich heritage. Ancient grains offer an alternative to wheat but also come bundled with functional and nutritional components, and provide new flavours and textures. They are a great way for free-from products to talk about health.”
The same research reveals that ‘super seeds’ have also seen an uptick in usage. Over the past two years, the percentage of food and drink products containing chia seeds has risen by 70 per cent, whilst the percentage containing pumpkin seeds has grown by 27 per cent and the percentage of food and drink products containing sunflower seeds has grown by 22 per cent.
“Some seeds, including chia and pumpkin seeds, offer complete protein, with all nine essential amino acids in the correct ratios. However, a lot of protein from seeds is incomplete. Blending seeds can help improve the quality of protein.” Stephanie says.
Going forward, Stephanie believes that turmeric ‘known for its anti-inflammatory benefits’ and moringa, said to have beauty and anti-aging properties, could be the superfoods to watch.
“Turmeric has potential as an ingredient in supplements and functional food and drink products, particularly within products aimed at the growing senior population. Additionally, moringa could be used in anti-ageing beauty food products. Whilst currently the ingredient is used in many beauty launches, the leaves are nutritional powerhouses,” she concludes.
But not everyone is a fan of the ‘superfood’ label – the lack of official definition for these foods leads opponents to claim that the term is used for marketing purposes, and in the media. In addition, some criticise the media for being too quick to jump on a trend, publishing new information without full proof, or proper scientific studies.
The NHS adds: “Most research on superfoods tests chemicals and extracts in concentrations not found in the food in its natural state. Garlic, for example, contains a nutrient alleged to help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. But you’d have to eat up to 28 cloves a day to match the doses used in the lab – something no researcher has yet been brave enough to try.”
However, under EU law, any use of the word ‘superfood’ must be supported by scientific evidence. One superfood producer has previously clarified and defended the claim. Ben Purcell is chief executive of Naturya, one of the UK’s leading superfood brands. According to Ben, a superfood is defined by having more micronutrients than any other food on the planet. He lists cocoa, chia, wheatgrass, spirulina and goji to name a few. He said: “Superfoods are better for you than a processed ready meal. The fact that our foods are nutrient-dense means you can get your daily vitamins and minerals more easily.”
As ever, nutritional wisdom falls on the side of moderation, with the NHS saying: “Diet plays an important role in our health, but there is concern that too much focus on individual foods may encourage unhealthy eating. Dietitians avoid the term “superfood” and prefer to talk of “super diets”, where the emphasis is on a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods.”
Alison Hornby, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, adds: “No food, including those labelled ‘superfoods’, can compensate for unhealthy eating. If people mistakenly believe they can ‘undo’ the damage caused by unhealthy foods by eating a superfood, they may continue making routine choices that are unhealthy and increase their risk of long-term illness.”
Vegan superfoods include:
- Goji berries
- Pomegranate juice
- Green tea
- Acai berries