The Super Story behind Superfoods: Kale Tales, Pom Promises and going Bananas for Bananas
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You can’t swing a dead cat these days without hearing about a Superfood. So I got to thinking - where did this trend of superfoods come from, what do they mean and where are they going?
There was a study released in 2016 by BMJ that found that in America over 50 percent of our food is processed food and only 5 percent of our food is plant-based food They reported that sugar and processed foods are big contributors to the rising diabetes rates among children.….I mean it has been 5 years so let’s see what studies are out there today!
So I found an even more recent study from August of 2021 that looked at the eating habits of 33,795 children and adolescents in America. It found that Two-thirds — or 67% — of calories consumed by children and adolescents in 2018 came from ultra-processed foods, a jump from 61% in 1999.
“Processed” is not inherently an evil word. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the only time a food can be called fresh is literally a farm directly to table - ripped from the ground or plucked from a tree.
- Unprocessed/Minimally Processed Foods: Think 100 percent natural and healthy. This group includes foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats and milk. Unprocessed foods are considered completely natural and are typically obtained directly from plants and animals. Minimally processed foods are also natural foods that have had very minor changes such as removal of inedible parts, fermentation, cooling, freezing, and any other processes that won't add extra ingredients or substances to the original product.
- If there is any element of processing - for example frozen vegetables - it is considered processed.
But that is not the kind of processing they’re talking about in this study. The researchers, from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University, defined “ultra-processed” as:
Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.
As classified by the NOVA Food Classification System developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, "ultra-processed food and beverages" is the fourth and final group of foods that "are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch and proteins)." They are derived from hydrogenated fats and modified starch, and are synthesized in laboratories.
The scientists analyzed 230,156 products and, using the NOVA classification system, found 71% of products such as bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets, sugary drinks and more were ultra-processed. Among the top 25 manufacturers by sales volume, 86% of products were classified as ultra-processed.
Amanda - what are your favorite processed foods?
Now let’s turn our eye in the opposite direction - Superfoods. I gotta tell you - I am a SUCKER for the siren song of a superfood. Promising life-changing benefits superfoods are the celebrities of the health food craze. But what exactly are superfoods?
Superfoods are foods — mostly plant-based but also some fish and dairy — that are thought to be nutritionally dense and thus good for your health. They are also referred to as “functional foods”. Superfoods often translate into super sales that have created a billion-dollar industry. Nielson did a survey and found that consumers are willing to pay more for foods perceived as healthy, and health claims are real deal clenchers. Foods already perceived as healthy that also carry a health claim show the greatest sales.
And OF COURSE - they can be minimally process or highly processed or all natural.
Additionally, I really noticed that the past 10-12 years have been the biggest driver for the superfood conversation in line with the nutrition and wellness craze. There are lots of data points and research particularly around 2015-2016 signifying a pivitol key dates in the trend and its explosion. Remember when people were walking around wearing kale t-shirts? Well in 2014 - Beyonce wore her Kale sweat-shirt in her 7/11 video - and that shit just took OFF>
Mintel GNPD (Global New Products Database) reveals that between 2011 and 2015 there was a phenomenal 202% increase globally in the number of new food and drink products launched containing the terms “superfood”, “superfruit” or “supergrain”.
Understanding the importance of the nutritional qualities of food is actually relatively new. Really only recently have scientists understood the correlation of food, health and disease within actually the first half of the 20th century leading to the discovery of identification and synthesis of many of the known essential vitamins and minerals and their use to prevent and treat nutritional deficiency-related diseases.
So superfoods came out of these discoveries - offering a marketing engine for many of the producers after scientific findings and research propelled data and evidence to create messaging.
Going Bananas for the Banana
So the question is where did the superfood really originate? Well, what is fascinating is that the humble banana was the first food that was treated as a superfood - but it wasn’t a narrative developed by scientists of dieticians - it was a food marketing strategy that was created in the early 20th century around World War I - curiously during the time of the great learning about food and health boom.
The Harvard School of Health has an article I will link in the show notes that uncovers the banana’s rise to popularity. So The United Fruit Company initiated a smart and rather enthusiastic advertising campaign to promote its major import of bananas. Clearly, they hired some rather creative marketing people to come in and generate sales - leaning into the nutritious value, being easy and cheap, easily digested and coming sealed by nature in a germ proof peel - they marketed it as a food that one should eat on a daily basis and incorporate in nearly every meal. They published pamphlets including Points About Bananas and the Food Value of the Banana and offered suggestions on how to add more bananas to your diet - like adding to cereal and in your favorite Jello dessert!
The popularity of the banana skyrocketed after it was endorsed in medical journals - after physicians published their findings of a banana diet treating certain diseases like celiacs and diabetes. “The American Medical Association announced that bananas in a child’s diet would provide relief for celiac disease or cure it (gluten had not yet been discovered as the true culprit). Bananas soon bore an emblem of health, and mothers made bananas a dietary staple for their children and infants even if they did not have celiac disease. The United Fruit Company included these health benefits in its promotional material and the popular press flaunted headlines about bananas, birthing the banana diet craze.”
Amanda - do you have any foods you consider super and actively try to enjoy?
I recently did this precision health test called Viome which is actually another startup craze and trend going around - I have been just not feeling great - really tired and worn down even though I am actively trying to make healthy decisions and get lots of rest, water, nutritious food and exercise. I even did a yearly physical - like the first in years - and they didn’t find anything. So there has been this trend in these home test kits - that can measure your health with sophisticated lab testing - to understand your microbiome and general health scores. I recently got my results and have been fascinated by them. It looks at your metabolic functioning, gut health, cellular health, mitochondrial health, immune system and stress response - even your biological age - then makes food recommendations as well as supplements and pro and pre-biotics - essentially diets to support your microbiome.
They create your personalized “superfoods” in a list - as well as what to enjoy and the foods to avoid or minimize - which interestingly enough for me - some of the foods to totally avoid or minimize are well-known popular superfoods! So I am recommended to avoid or minimize foods like beets, Turmeric, spinach and almonds and to totally avoid tomatoes, melon and bell peppers - foods i have specifically made sure to have in my diet for their health benefits! The recommendations purpose is to increase your overall gut health - by understanding the strengths and weaknesses that play an important role to optimize reducing inflammation, support cellular functioning and your microbiome, etc.
So shifting into current superfoods I am taking a look at some of the most notorious legends of the trend.
One longstanding darlings of the “superfood” category is the Blueberry - which still to this day is considered a powerhouse. So in 1991 there was this rating tool that was developed by scientists from the National Institute on Aging and the USDA - it is called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity - or ORAC. This tool is used to measure the antioxidant capacity in foods - I would be surprised if you aren’t aware but for a mini science lesson Antioxidants are these molecules that may help reduce free radicals in the body that are very damaging and cause cellular aging - so foods high in antioxidants are considered very healthy in terms of food as medicine. So Blueberries won the lottery and were found to have one of the highest amounts of antioxidants - in addition to spices and cocoa, berries and legumes. Of course the Blueberry council of producers promoted them heavy as powerhouses for disease-fighting even if the science behind it was sorta eh. THEN 20 YEARS after the ORAC was developed - so like 2011 - the USDA retracted the info and removed the whole database after they determined that antioxidants have many functions not all related to free-radicals - and that the database was supporting misleading claims in marketing initiatives...They decided that the ORAC was actually useless. BUT despite that retraction - blueberries continue to be trendy - and according to this Harvard article “ blueberry production in the U.S. doubled from 1998-2006, and has continued to increase every year through 2016.
Moving onto the legendary Pomegranate juice. Lord, do you remember the literal explosion of Pom juice? I mean it was practically crack cocaine for a while in what the mid-late aughts? Well, Pom Juice pumped money into marketing and scientific studies around epic health and wellness claims. Since 1998, POM supported over $34M in research of their variety of pomegranates including 19 clinical trials and multiple studies published in peer-reviewed journals.
But in 2010 the FTC charged them with misleading snake oil marketing and was ordered to dial down claims of the extent of health delcarations. A judge issued a cease-and-desist order after determining that the company had insufficient evidence to support claims that its juice reduced the risks of heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile disfunction - and in fact were misleading consumers and despite evidence towards unsupported and false health claims coming directly out of the research, they were funding.
For example the NY Times mentions in an article on the case that “ Those results ignored the fact... that as early as May 2007 the company knew that a large study financed by the company showed no significant difference in arterial plaque buildup after 18 months between patients who drank Pom and those who drank a placebo.
The commission also stated that the company’s prostate-related claims relied on a study that itself notes uncertainty as to whether the outcomes cited by the company were relevant as an indication of clinical benefit. It also said the company’s studies on erectile function produced no statistically significant results. Pom strongly disputed the commission’s assertions. “We do not make claims that our products act as drugs,” the company said. “What we do, rather, is communicate, through advertising, the promising science relating to pomegranates. Consumers and their health providers have a right to know about this research and its results.””
We can’t talk superfoods without talking Kale - So Kale took off in the late aughts and early aughties with Bon Appétit declaring that 2012 was the Year of Kale. USA Today reported that kale increased on restaurant menus by 400% between 2008 and 2013 and that prior to 2013 the biggest consumer for kale was in fact Pizza Hut who used it in their buffets to decorate.
So what happened? Well, lots of things - the rise in farm-to-table restaurants and increased awareness of health and conspicuous health-consciousness rituals are a few big ones - but really social media, celebrity and high profile food bloggers really lead the charge. Gwenyth Paltrow gave kale the real platform it needed in 2011 when she made her infamous kale chips live on Ellen. There was an uproar and it really took off….then of course the Beyonce sweatshirt and Kale was on practically its own pop-culture icon.
FSR magazine - reports that from 2013 to 14, a survey of restaurant menu's showed a 47% increase in the word kale.
In 2019 Amanda Mull wrote an article for the Atlantic titled The Saddest Leafy Green - America Never Really liked Kale. And she breaks down the yearly winter vegetable trend cycle well known to grocery stores across the nation.
I am going to read a little excerpt:
“Every January, the produce drawers in America’s refrigerators fill up with shame. The moment comes at the end of a three-vegetable trend that runs through the holidays. First, in mid-November, the country happily becomes obsessed with brussels sprouts (or “brussel sprouts,” as Americans tend to spell it), likely in anticipation of Thanksgiving and its many delicious, often bacon-laden side dishes. Next, after sprouts have had their day in the sun, spinach ascends and almost always peaks in December. Christmas, after all, also requires side dishes, but you have to mix it up or your cousins will talk. By January, though, things have changed. The mood is darker. America is ready to repent for the imagined sins of “enjoying food” and “cooking things that taste good.” January belongs to kale.”
She argues that Kale was really just a blip - Food trends usually last 10 to 20 years before waning and the kale trend really hit it’s peak in 2014 overcoming spinach in search trends - but now - only a few years later it is back down to pre-2011 times and at half its search popularity of the 2014 high - maybe pointing to the fact that people just really were not that into kale in the first place.
Apparently - although sales of kale are down (not by half however) it appears that consumers are moving to other vegetables with brussels sprouts and spinach all seeing positive comps. I kinda feel like kale is now here to stay - it will never just be a garnish again - and has just seamlessly transitioned to the the lexicon of the American diet.
Almonds and Almond Milk is one my last superfoods I am going to talk about and boy is she a doozy. The trend and demand for almond products has increased so dramatically over the past few years that it has become harmful to the planet and people. Almond milk sales grew by 250% between 2011 and 2015, and almond butter production has tripled since 2011.
Did you know that Almonds demand a lot of water which puts a huge strain on resources - especially since California which is notorious for its droughts produces 80% of the global almond supply? One single almond takes one gallon of water to produce.
They also use a ton of fertilizer and pesticides - which we all know are not healthy for the environment - and the bee population - with many of them being lethal to the honey bees. Every year honey bee hives and transported across the country during the almond blooming season - nearly 1.7 million hives or 85% of the available commercial hives in the US and a Billion dye every year during the season.
The conversation.com shares that “Roughly 1 million acres of almond trees collectively bloom over a three-week period every February, creating spectacular scenic views but also putting enormous pressure on the farmers to pollinate them quickly. Each almond acre requires roughly two honey bee hives, each of which typically houses one colony of about 20,000 bees. With 2 million hives needed, that’s well more than half of the total U.S. hive population.
One reason so many beekeepers make the long trek is because almond pollination fees are especially high. The average price of $171 per hive in 2017 was more than three times the rate for other crops later in the spring.”
So the pressure for more almonds puts a lot of strain on the honey bees - and risk reducing populations all because we want more almond milk for our coffee.
In more facts I didn’t know but glad I do know - the Quinoa trend has been absolutely devastating to the local populations that grow it.
Interest in Quinoa has been spiking as a high protein, nutrient-dense and gluten-free grain Americans can’t seem to get enough. Between 2014 and 2015, the percentage of food and drink products containing quinoa rose by 27%. This surge in demand over the past decade has created repercussions for the natives in the countries that produce quinoa and have used it as a staple food source for thousands of years- for example, Bolivians - who cannot afford the grain anymore because demand has driven up the price so much - creating crises in malnourished people because they have to purchase refined grains at the store.
The region also faces decreased soil fertility, as farmers mine their soil to grow quinoa year after year to meet Western demand, instead of using traditional methods of rotating crops with llama pasture to restore fertility and prevent erosion.