Superfoods are curious beasts. Everyone has heard about them, but nobody knows exactly what they are, except for one thing - they are reportedly super-good for you.
According to Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD), superfoods, including superfruits or supergrains, saw an increase of over 200 percent in new product launches between 2011 and 2015. This is attributed to increasing consumer demand, which seems to indicate that, even if consumers may not know exactly what they are, they do know that they want them.
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The start of the superfood trend
The superfoods trend started about 15 years ago, then just called superfruits. One of the first fruits to gain this auspicious title was the goji berry, lauded for its high vitamin content (most notably vitamin C, vitamin B2, and vitamin A) and for its high content of antioxidants.
This, in fact, was the definition of superfruit for a while - a fruit containing more of at least one nutrient than the average staple fruits for any given region.
This definition became confusing, however, when staple fruits such as blueberries also gained the "super" halo. Blueberries are not any more nutrient-dense than other fruits, but they contain antioxidants, most notably anthocyanins.
The antioxidant effect can clearly be shown in vitro. It is not clear, however, whether this effect carries over into the human body, calling not only the superfruit label but also the antioxidant label itself into question.
Meanwhile, more foods than just fruit are being added to the list of foods that are super-good for you, like algae (spirulina is one example), vegetables like kale or spinach, the ever-popular green tea, spices such as curcuma, nuts (e.g. walnuts), or ancient grains like quinoa or sorghum. Soon, the term "superfruits" gave way to "superfoods", so every food that is “super” in some way can be covered by it.
But what does “super” mean, exactly?
When can a food be called a superfood?
The short answer is, there is no clear definition. The term is not in general use by nutritionists. In fact, the only people who use it in product-related communication are marketing people, and they come up against regulatory resistance when they do so.
In the UK, regulatory watchdog authority Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned the term "superfood" from a brand name, because it did not follow the requirements of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR). In particular, a general claim such as "superfood" must be followed by authorized specific health claims, which was not possible, because no health claims have been authorized for the food in question.
However, "superfood" itself is not a health claim, so it still can be and is used. However, it is non-specific enough to cause confusion as to when it can be used, and when using it constitutes consumer deception.
Claiming a food to be a superfood and backing this claim up by listing the amounts of nutrients may be one way to go, but only if the listed nutrients reach levels in accordance with the conditions of use of one or more of the EU’s EC Regulation No 1924/2006, article 13.1 health claims.1 This would make use of these health claims possible and thus satisfy the criticism of a general claim not being backed by a specific one.
In fact, this is the route manufacturers of many ancient grain products go: they make the minus claim gluten-free - most ancient grains do not contain gluten - and add the amounts of nutrients contained in the ancient grain in order to back health benefits.
The future of superfoods
Despite all the regulatory worries, the superfoods market is growing, with the next candidates already on the horizon.
One such candidate is tiger nut, which is not really a nut but a tuber originating in Africa. Tiger nuts are gluten-free and can be used to make a plant-based milk, thus also catering to the dairy-free crowd. At the same time, they have a sweet flavor reminiscent of coconut and a pleasantly creamy texture when processed into milk.
Two other candidates emerging from Japan and gaining traction on the European markets are ancient grains hemp seed and teff. Hemp seeds offer immunity and beauty potential while teff can provide blood sugar control and weight loss-aiding benefits. However, with the health claim situation in Europe being what it is, the question remains whether these benefits will ever actually be claimed, or whether the generic descriptor "superfood" will remain the only selling point.
- Superfood Spotlight: Blueberry
- Is Peruvian lucuma the next superfood?
- Ancient Grains in Depth: Bulgur, Buckwheat, Millet, Spelt & Teff
- One Teff Competitor: What You Should Know About This Up-and-Coming Grain
- European Food Safety Authority: “General function” health claims under Article 13
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