Superfoods have enjoyed a substantial rise over recent years, promising unbeatable benefits when included in our diets.
From assisting with weight loss goals to boosting our immunity, it appeared that superfoods could do no wrong.
Yet, as interest in where our food comes from has piqued, superfoods have also come under scrutiny. Many of the top superfoods carry a large carbon footprint or are grown in conflict areas. This article will delve into the world of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ superfoods, highlighting which ones to avoid and why.
What are superfoods?
The term “superfood” is not grounded in scientific fact, but it is a phrase created for marketing. It refers to foods that provide health benefits thanks to their nutrient density. Many dieticians and health professionals steer away from the term, disputing the claimed benefits.
Despite this, superfoods have continued to rise in popularity, with many new ones being added to the list every year.
The foods usually contain a number of antioxidants, healthy fats, fibre, and/or phytochemicals, thought to ward off cancers and help with several other health issues. However, there are no set labelling criteria for superfoods.
Certain superfoods carry a larger carbon footprint than others, and some come with a host of ethical problems. Recent research into the sustainability of superfoods has exposed this darker side of the term, highlighting a number of bad superfoods that people should aim to avoid.
Quinoa is one of the most notorious bad superfoods. Between 2006 and 2014, demand for the tiny grain caused it to triple in price. It is mostly grown in cool, arid climates such as Peru and Bolivia, where farmers have started to favour an intensive quinoa monoculture over more traditional crop rotation. To keep up with demand, they also rely on chemical fertilisers that damage the land, taking it away from the habitat.
Avocados have long dominated news stories for their excessive carbon footprint and impact on natural ecosystems. Increased prices and interest in the West have led to growers in Mexico and elsewhere thinning out pine forests to plant the crop. The avocado growing business is also linked to criminal organisations and illegal deforestation.
The protein-rich nut has been said to help with weight loss, prompting their demand and label as a good superfood for energy. Over 82% of the world’s almonds are produced in California, a state that regularly battles droughts and wildfires, neither of which is helped by almond manufacturing. Every single almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce, but harvests are getting bigger year after year. The value of the nut – technically a seed – seemingly outweighs the protection of the planet, with almond trucks carrying an average estimated load of $160,000.
The acai berry is more likely to be found in a superfood smoothie or yoghurt bowl, with links to reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Yet, the acai berry is grown in one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet – the Amazon rainforest. While the berry is indigenous to the area, rising demand has contributed to the cutting of native trees to make way for acai plantations, drastically impacting the forest’s productivity.
Cacao may be typically found in one of the unhealthiest foods on the planet (chocolate), but on its own, the raw cacao bean has been said to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Because of this, you’ll often find it included on superfood lists, though it also comes with its fair share of ethical and environmental issues. The Ivory Coast, the largest exporter of cacao, has lost 80% of its forests in the last five decades due to cacao plantations.
If you are looking to add more superfoods to your diet, the following have been proven to be more eco-friendly and boast a range of health benefits.
Seaweed is one of the few foods that actually has a positive environmental impact the more that it grows. It helps to remove toxins in the seawater, absorbing up to 20% more carbon dioxide than it produces. When eaten, it can assist with the healthy function of your thyroid gland and contains vitamins K, B, zinc and iron, as well as a host of antioxidants. You can easily add this to your diet in the form of superfood powders, commonly sold as kelp powder.
Regularly found in superfood salads, beetroot supports nearly every part of your body, from the brain to your heart and digestive system. Beetroot also benefits from being grown in cooler climates such as locally in the UK, meaning it carries a smaller carbon footprint.
From salads to smoothies, kale is considered one of the best superfoods and king of the leafy greens, thanks to its abundance of vitamins and minerals. The superfood is also incredibly frost hardy – withstanding temperatures as low as -15 degrees – meaning it can be grown and harvested in most areas of the UK.
New climate-friendly superfoods
As the climate warms and changes, scientists are searching for more sustainable food sources that can be grown in more extreme environments and provide for a greater number of people.
Breadfruit is one such emerging superfood, with climate models suggesting that it could grow well across the tropics for many years to come. The resilient trees produce highly nutritious and productive fruit, which should be unaffected by a warming planet.
Experts also identified an opportunity to grow breadfruit in tropical Africa, an area that often experiences famine, over time. Utilising the crop more may take the reliance off grains like rice, which are not expected to survive climate change.
Also, in Africa, enset is being hailed as Ethiopia’s ‘wondercrop’. The banana-like plant is largely unknown outside of the country, yet research also suggests that it could be grown across a much wider area of the continent and has the potential to feed over 100 million over the next four decades. It can also be planted and harvested at any time of the year, boosting local food security.