Super ingredients in healthy foods—is it just hype or really healthy?
In an age of Michael Pollan “eat right” literature and Food Inc-like films, conscience eating is everywhere. We’re living in a time when we're thinking of food as medicine, a natural way to promote our own good health. Long ago, we’d pick an apple off a tree and call it a day. Nowadays, foods not only come fortified, but seem to contain a "super" ingredient. Regular yogurts have morphed into antioxidant-filled, probiotic snacks and peanut butter comes packed with omega-3. Ever wonder what's really worth buying for your health or what's simply sucking your wallet dry?
With the popularity of food products containing superfoods, such as pomegranate, acai, green tea and soy, are we really benefiting from these added ingredients? Wendy Bazilian, DrPh, RD, author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet, explains that superfoods are “health-promoting, disease-fighting foods”. It’s no wonder food manufacturers are adding them to snacks and cereals, but it’s up to the consumers to educate themselves on what’s worth buying, at least for its health benefits.
While you peruse the cereal aisle, you might decide to purchase the cereal that is marked with added green tea, such as Kashi’s popular Heart to Heart cereal. Why? It appears, from the box, to give you extra antioxidants. Plus, doesn’t that just sound cool?
iVillage health editor-at-large, Madelyn Fernstrom Ph.D., CNS, explains, “To add something that’s not naturally found in a [food] can be okay, but you’re not looking for green tea in cereal.” When it comes to fortified foods, “it’s hard to tell how much is actually going to be in there. It’s not bad, but it’s not going to provide the effects you expect. Really pay attention to what else is in the food.”
“A note of caution is to not buy these things with the expectation that they’re going to have a super-nutrient value that’s translated into super healthy effects on the body," Fernstrom warns.
If you’re eating a processed food specifically for its superfood ingredients, you may just be consuming extra calories and not be benefiting from the added super ingredients at all. There are important measures to consider to get the most out of your money. While healthy processed foods can get pricey, Bazilian encourages consumers to consider the convenience vs. cost relationship when purchasing foods. Is the convenience worth the cost to you?
“I like to see that [the superfood] is more prominent, that it’s not the 19th ingredient out of 20,” says Bazilian. When it comes to any processed foods, you should look at the ingredients list to see if you know every ingredient that you're eating and if the added “super” component is in the top five. If it’s not, most likely, it’s not benefiting your health in any significant way. Bazilian also points out that the top five ingredients should all be beneficial to your health to determine if it is a healthy food, which is more important than if it has a superfood in it or not.
“It’s really the synergy of superfoods [that you’re benefiting from]. There’s no one superfood that will give you eternal life. It’s a combination of it all. We don’t eat just single nutrients. We eat a combination and that’s why the whole food package becomes important,” says Bazilian.
Sometimes, yogurt is just yogurt and cereal is just cereal—they’re healthy foods that supply you with much needed nutrients. And, the superfood component doesn’t necessarily make it any more special then the next box of cereal.
However, there are other essential factors to look for, such as calories, fiber and fat, when you are shopping for healthy foods. It's important to eat as much whole foods as possible, whether it's raw, cooked, or treated in any way.
With endless marketing gimmicks out there, don’t be fooled by health-promoting buzz words. “There are some federal regulations about what you can say on the outside of a package—you can’t make health claims. But, you will see more general claims on the packaging,” Fernstrom explains.
Due to the placebo effect, there may be a plus to some sneaky health foods Fernstrom says. “There may not be anything biological in it that’s going to make you healthier, but if you feel better or it's helping you stay on track with your weight-loss efforts, buy it.” For some, a little whole in the pocket may be worth a little peace of mind.
“Look at fun and trendy [food] products as supplemental to the diet, a whole foods affordable diet. They’re accompaniments, not the core diet,” says Bazilian. If you love your four-dollar pomegranate tea and it’s not affecting your body in a negative way, then go ahead and have your fruits and drink it, too.