Super foods, a marketing dream

The idea of a ‘super food’, like so much of the hype surrounding diet and nutrition is simply a marketing concoction that pushes the appealing concept of a ‘nutritional magic bullet’. Most of the, so-called, ‘super foods’ are plant-based, but also sometimes include fish, dairy products and seeds. In reality, the term ‘super food’ (coined by the alternative nutritionist Michael Van Stratten, in the 1990’s) is not a scientific or nutritional term but rather a marketing buzzword used to entice consumers into believing their health will be transformed by eating foods designated ‘super’. These ‘super foods’ are promoted as being particularly nutritionally dense in various micro nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and/or a selection of phyto chemicals and anti oxidants that are imbued with over-hyped and largely unproven health giving qualities.

Most’super foods’ claim to have powerful, almost miraculous, properties that can apparently cure everything from a dull complexion,erectile dysfunction and even cancer;and can help you lose weigh and to live a longer, healthier life. While kale, quinoa, blueberries, goji berries, pomegranate, acai berries, chia seeds and their like, do have marginal health benefits, in reality, the exotic berries or juices marketed as ‘super foods’ are no more ‘healthy’ than plain, ordinary, fruit and vegetables that cost a fraction of the price.Exotic plants, fruits and herbs have a lot of sales appeal (“cacti from Africa”, “Berries from the Himalayas,” “juices from the Amazonian rain forest”) and make a good sales pitch. Stories of “miracle foods” sell magazines and advertising space; the food industries sponsor research to show that their foods or products are superior and the vastly profitable supplement industries similarly look to boost sales. According to Global Industry Analysts, the global market for super foods was projected to reach $130 billion, in 2015.

Goji Berries

Let’s have a closer look at goji and acai, two trendy, esoteric, exotic and expensive berries that claim to have amazing health benefits. Goji berries are red berries grown and harvested in China and have been part of traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. They are usually eaten in dried or juiced form and proponents claim that they can: boost immunity; prevent heart disease; and improve life expectancy. The claimed health giving properties of goji berries are due to the fact that they are they are high in B vitamins and a number of anti oxidant compounds. Interestingly, the British Dietetic Association have illustrated that a person would need to drink at least 13 servings of goji berry juice to get as many antioxidants as by eating just one, large, apple. In January 2007, the various marketing statements for goji juice were the subject of an investigation by the US CBC Television’s consumer advocacy program “Marketplace”; in a review of medical literature and considering each of the proposed claims of health benefits from Himalayan Goji Juice they concluded that 22 of 23 advertised claims had no evidence for providing a health benefit.

Acai Berries

Acai berries are the fruits of a palm tree, which grows in the Amazonian rainforest. They look like blueberries and have been hailed as a ‘super-food’, high in anti-oxidants and anthocyanin in particular (a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the body against oxidative stress and cell damage). Because they spoil soon after picking they are mostly sold in capsules or in powdered form or in juices and smoothies. Acai first gained popularity in the United States after a Dr. Mehmet Oz (a Dr and TV guru), appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2009 and claimed that acai: improved skin health; helped with sexual dysfunction; fights against ageing; and most controversially aided weight loss. What subsequently happened was that many acai companies used Winfrey and Oz as endorsers of their products. Winfrey and Oz went on to sue more than 40 companies for illegally using their names to sell products and Oz appeared on Good Morning America to warn about false health products and scamming acai companies. In reality, acai has fewer antioxidants than grapes or blueberries and furthermore there has never been any evidence to suggest that antioxidants or indeed acai can promote weight loss.

The acai, supplement business

If you google ‘acai berry’ you’ll get more than 6 million hits; try googling ‘acai berry scam’ and you’ll still get nearly one million. The pushers of these supplements have got wise to the fact that many consumers realise that they have been conned so they have created fake sites, blogs, testimonials and reviews that appear, at first glance, to give objective advice whilst actually promoting a particular brand of acai. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reported, in 2010, that there were at least 80 different blogs written by different people, all of them having the same before and after pics of their acai-berry body transformation of a woman, who turned out to be a German model, whose photo was photo shoped to give a before and after comparison. Thus, Tara, Olivia, Alicia, Becky and all the others were the same woman who was unaware that her image was being used to scam consumers into purchasing a bogus product.

The acai industry, like much of the alternative and supplement industry flourishes in an aggressive, on-line, unregulated, network, marketing environment. Products are being sold via multi-level marketing distribution networks which means high prices to end consumers in order to pay distributor commissions. If Bernie Madox were in the supplement business, this is exactly how he’d do it!

So, acai is big, big, business; Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Haagen-Dazs are adding the it to their products and Procter & Gamble have infused acai into its Herbal Essence shampoos and conditioners. A commonly expressed sentiment among people who sell products like goji and acai is that the medical ‘industry’ and ‘big pharma’ are exploiting us; don’t really want us to be well and are conspiring to make us to stay sick, so that they can make money from our ill health. The truth is more proziac; those who tout ‘super foods’, bogus ‘healthcare’ and ‘wellness’ products, are basically selling expensive snake oil and placebos and trying to relieve you of your money.

New for 2017

Oh, and look out for the new, 2017, ‘super foods’. Maqui berries; Chilean berries that are “rich in vitamin C and antioxidant anthocyanins” and claim to be “associated with anti-ageing” they sell for £17.99 and are available from Amazon (and other retailers). Chaga mushrooms, ‘the king of medicinal mushrooms’, these claim to “boost the immune system with anti microbial and antioxidant properties”, teabags are available from Planet Organic, £23.99 for 20.

You have been warned.