Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What is a Superfood Really?

It might seem like a silly question really. But what is a super food?

When I think of a superfood, I immediately think of blueberries. I think of things that are dark green or deep purple, foods that go beyond basic nutrition, foods that house more nutrients per cubic millimeter than others. I always thought they are usually fruits and vegetables, but more often fruits: blueberries, acai berries, spirulina and chlorella. Many of the superfoods are things I already eat, but some are not.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I saw this as I rode home on my uptown A train.

Do you see that little sentence at the very bottom? It says “With over 30 vitamins and nutrients, peanuts are a Superfood”. Well I am no hater of peanuts. In fact I rather like their taste. But ever since I read about aflatoxins and lectins, I haven’t reached for them. But the truth is, I never ate them that often. The aflatoxin thing just sealed the deal. I much prefer almonds and cashews. But something about this statement pissed me. It seemed so obviously marketing.

Now I don’t doubt that peanuts contain 30 vitamins and nutrients, but I have also read enough that I might hesitate to compare peanuts to blueberries if I was the one writing the article. So I asked myself, what is a superfood? My conclusions were kind of interesting.

When I first Googled ‘superfoods’ and what is a superfood’ I turned up hundreds of thousands of articles trying to sell me chlorella caps and Odwalla juice. The individual cites threw the term around loosely, mostly in high praise of whatever they were selling. Then I Googled ‘list of superfoods’ and I got a couple of interesting returns.

First I got Web MD articles and the like giving me 10 or 12 superfoods that my diet can’t be without. Stuff like Salmon and Spinach and there they were blueberries. But a better cite came next. Off a site called http://www.superfoodinfos.net/ I got a long article listing out foods and explaining it. The article listed out many many different foods from acai berries to carrots and cantaloupe to garlic and green beans to prunes and pumpkins all the way to walnuts and wild salmon. Virtually every fruit and vegetable was on this list. This was the longest list I found. But I didn’t look past the first Google page, because I specifically wanted cites with a lot of hits. I wanted to know what the conventional wisdom was.

There is only one animal food on the list, wild salmon. The rest are fruits and veggies and nuts and spices. There are only two nuts on the list—cashews and walnuts. In fact while there was great variance among the different lists I read (some included almonds), NONE of the sites mentioned peanuts as being a superfood.

But what about an official list of superfoods? Well, there isn’t one. I checked. ‘Superfood’ is not a term that is regulated by the USDA. Coca-Cola could put the term on the outside of their sodas with no legal repercussion (If I am wrong, can someone school me in the comments section—thanks!). Though possibly they might call attention to the word and get sued for some kind of civil advertising something.

But that is what makes this peanut case all the more tricky. If Coca-Cola proclaimed their sodas as superfoods, you would probably think less of them, because you didn’t inherently believe it. That would be the kind of marketing that pissed you off enough to tweet about it, or even sue. And that is bad publicity. But when peanuts advertise themselves as superfood, you might think it sounds kind of right. In fact, maybe it takes you off guard a little because you have never heard of peanuts being a superfood. Then you start to think maybe they just got ‘superfood’ status, so that’s why you haven’t heard of it. And peanuts are really high in protein and they are (sometimes) unprocessed, maybe the next time you are at the store you’ll pick some up! After all they are a superfood.

But this advertisement is just playing into the pre-conceived notions that you already have. The advertisement, in my opinion, is aimed at people who already have a favorable opinion of peanuts. The advertisement attempts to make those people go out and take action by buying peanuts. On one hand, claiming that they are a superfood is a bold move when you realize that the word means virtually nothing. And on another hand this is a very subtle ad campaign that plays on some of the hot verbiage in the marketing place. And it is smart for an industry lobby to reach out to those folks who like their products, but haven’t recently bought.

This post today is not out to get you stop buying peanuts. Hell, peanuts are in general pretty good for you. Even my pediatrician laughed at the notion of aflatoxins when I discussed it with her. “Oh yeah, they’ve known about them for years”, she said. Go and buy peanuts if you love them.

The point of this post is to encourage you to become more of a skeptic. This is a good one, a really good one. Never think that you are too smart to withstand marketing. Modern marketing is tricky, and sophisticated. The marketers might not be able to convince you about everything, but I guarantee they have gotten you on at least one thing in the last week. And you didn’t even realize it. So keep reading, keep googling, stay aware and make up your own damn mind.

This post is part of Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays and Real Food Whole Health's Fresh Bites Friday


  1. Superfood is a marketing term. It's very vague and can be used to describe anything. It's not a nutrition term. The peanut guys just found a hook. But you are right, we need to be aware of greenwashing and mareting in general. It's like I've told my kids from the time they could watch tv-- don't believe the commercials.

  2. The funny thing is, I've seen so much bs online about acai and pomegranate being "superfoods" that I tend to actually ignore any food that claims that label. The only thing in that ad that actually appeals to me (and I like peanuts and peanut products) is the use of the term "bringer forther".