Finding the truth about 'superfoods'
The achacha fruit is the latest food to be hyped up. But do the health claims really pass scientific scrutiny?
Published 12/03/2014 | 02:30
Once upon a time, Irish consumers thought a cranberry was a member of a rock band from Limerick. Now the fruit is a staple on an ever-expanding list of superfoods ranging from goji berries to quinoa.
The latest craze in the quest for dietary perfection is the achacha, a soft, orange-coloured fruit from Bolivia that has hit the shelves of Marks & Spencer. It is being sold for €3 a pack of four until Saturday, when the achacha will be out of season.
The exotic fruit's name may sound like someone suppressing a sneeze, but M&S has feted the achacha as being low in sugar and rich in antioxidants such as vitamin C, potassium and riboflavin. Antioxidants neutralise the "free radical" molecules in the blood thought to contribute to ageing and illness.
While the achacha originated in the Bolivian rainforest, where its honey has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, the fruit being sold at Irish M&S outlets is grown by a Bolivian farmer in Australia.
Superfoods are typically hailed by dietary gurus and celebrities as a fast route to perfect health and longevity. But some dieticians wonder if superfoods really exist at all. Indeed, the EU has banned the term "superfood" on packaging unless it can be backed up with scientific chapter and verse.
Richelle Flanagan, president of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, is also sceptical about claims these foods have super-nutritious properties.
"Anything that draws attention to better nutrition is a good thing, but calling it a superfood is really just a marketing ploy," Richelle says.
"From our point of view, there is no one food that can be called a 'superfood'.
"This is a marketing campaign to appeal to the middle classes. I'd prefer to get people eating an apple and orange a day, and some broccoli and carrots."
We examine whether the hyping of other fashionable foods stands up to scientific scrutiny.
Hype factor: About to become stratospheric
Health factor: 3/10
Just when you were still trying to pronounce açai, the popular Brazilian berry, it's about to be overtaken by a relatively unknown fruit called the buffaloberry.
A recent study published in the Journal of Food Science is touting the buffaloberry as the superfruit of 2014.
American researchers who collected wild buffaloberries found the tiny, red, slightly sour fruits were relatively rich in lycopene – an antioxidant that appears to lower the risk of certain types of cancer.
Coconut water and oil
Hype factor: Medium
Health factor: 4/10
The hard, brown, hairy fruit was best known to those of us who grew up in 1980s Ireland as the inside of a Bounty bar, but the coconut is enjoying a renaissance as a trendy fruit.
This is especially true of the fruit's oil and water. Coconut water has been adopted by gym-goers for its ability to rehydrate with low levels of natural sugar and organic electrolytes. It promises everything from clear skin to weight loss and improved blood pressure. However, the Harvard School of Public Health says one 11-ounce container of coconut water has 60 calories and the calories can mount up quickly if you drink several in one day.
Coconut oil is rich in antioxidants and maintains its nutritive properties in cooking and baking.
But the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, an American non-profit organisation, says coconut oil raises both HDL, the so-called "good" cholesterol, and LDL, which is "bad" cholesterol.
Hype factor: High
Health factor: 5/10
There are claims that these protect against heart disease and cancer, turbo-charge the immune system and boost brain activity. But most research into these benefits is based on small-scale studies and performed in laboratories using purified and highly concentrated extracts of the goji berry.
Hype factor: Medium high
Health factor: 7/10
These seeds come from a mint-like plant that grows in Latin America and are popular among Hollywood A-listers. Advocates say chia seeds have, weight for weight, up to eight times more omega-3 than salmon. But it's a less useful kind of omega-3 than that found in oily fish.
Hype factor: Low
Hype factor: 9/10
This traditional staple of Irish dinners has undergone a transformation, courtesy of endorsements from celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow. The New York Times has dubbed kale the unofficial vegetable of Brooklyn, the hipster capital of America.
This fibre-rich vegetable is full of vitamin A and C and an excellent source of lutein and zeaxanthin for fighting age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition suffered by actress Judi Dench.
"Kale can decrease the risk of developing AMD, which is the leading cause of sight loss in Ireland, with one-in-10 over the age of 50 developing the disease," says dietitian Ellen Roche.