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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Superfoods and Magic Beans

“Top 10 (or 7, or 5, or whatever) Superfoods” lists seem to be popping up on the covers of all the in magazines this month. If I didn’t get a headache every time I tried it, I’d be rolling my eyes.

The classic bloated diet article with the even more classic bloated promise of magic beanhood is nothing new, I realize. But “superfoods”…

The premise of calling something a superfood is that if you eat this one special food, or at least shop your way down the list of 5, or 10, or whatever’s in the article, you’ll be so much healthier than someone who eats a regular food. Right?

Usually the items on these lists of so-called superfoods turn out to be expensive exotics like dried acai berries and pomegranate juice. Both of which just happen to have heavyhitter funding and marketing efforts behind branded packaged versions of them, and the companies that have started branding and marketing them have both recently come under FDA scrutiny for overinflated and unsubstantiated health claims.

Of course you don’t have to go branded to run into wide-eyed, breathless claims about supposed superfoods. More mundane choices like the sunflower seeds, green peas and garlic touted in this LA Times food section article are also now being highlighted as the new great green hope for America.

But not for the reasons that make the most sense–that these foods are relatively unprocessed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds (occasionally someone remembers to add something from the beans and pulses category too). All of this vegetation has almost disappeared from the current mostly-processed, mostly restaurant diet of the American public. The general categories now touted as superfoods contain protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. They’re wholesome and varied if you buy them fresh (or dried) and cook them yourself. Some of them are green (and they’re supposed to be!)

That’s in stark contrast to the now-standard and really dreary burger, ketchup, fries and soda that are all made out of the same three or four overused industrial ingredients (wheat, soy, corn and salt, with a little beef scrap or so thrown in for the burger, some leftover tomato paste for the ketchup, and much less potato than you’d think in the fries). I understand how something that’s actually recognizably plant-based would seem exotic and ultrahealthy in comparison. I do. Because frankly, you could take your soy-based green crayons and color a piece of all-natural bamboo-fiber cardboard and eat that and it would be healthier than the fast food special.

But does that mean vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts and seeds are suddenly superfoods?

What are superfoods supposed to be, exactly? Look at the captions for what’s so great about each featured food and you find a couple of consistent characteristics.

First is each food’s supposed high antioxidant value–which mostly refers to vitamins C and E, but occasionally to other vitamins as well. Second is the possibility that it’s a source of lycopenes (as in tomato and berry skins), resveratrol (found in grapes and wine) and other “phytochemicals” or, in plain English, plant chemicals. The physiological functions and benefits (if any) of these compounds aren’t yet very well understood and they don’t seem to be as necessary for human health as the classic round of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber etc, but they might still be valuable because some of them appear to  have modest cholesterol- or blood pressure-lowering potential.

The third item on the superfood writer’s wish list is “a good source of trace minerals” such as selenium–which, incidentally, is poisonous in anything more than trace doses, and is a lot less necessary to the daily diet than iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium.

Well, yippee. Yes, I’m glad I’m not seeing processed foods or pills containing these items on the wish list. But why should we suddenly be calling vegetables and fruits and grains and nuts and seeds “superfoods”? Why not just “food”? Elevating specific ones (particularly the expensive ones) to something on the level of a magic bullet against specific forms of disease is just silly. And expensive. And really prone to abuse.

Because the next logical step is the one where food scientists then isolate the fabulous phytochemicals and concentrate them. At my local Whole Foods, the person ahead of me at the cashier stand is invariably dropping $100 on such supplements and about $5 on actual groceries. At my local Ralphs (a Kroger subsidiary, I think) the breakfast cereals aisle now sports a lot of antioxidant claims on boxes of otherwise worthless breakfast cereal doped with a few drops of the miracle liquid. The cereal boxes now cost about $5 also.

I’m not sure which scenario is more pernicious–I suspect it depends on your political leanings. I envision the Whole Foods customer as generally left-leaning progressive, and his or her poorly-informed convictions about antioxidants and phytochemicals and the like a distilled remnant of the macrobiotics fad (remember that?) from the ’70s. On the front of the box of non-elite/right-wing-appealing breakfast crunchies are claims like “New improved Sooper Froots, now with Superfood Essence!” You can just imagine Sarah Palin touting them at paid speaking engagements with a wink and a you-betcha and telling everyone that it’s better than a donut [sic] once the current 2nd Amendment brouhaha dies down and she manages to pull that very expensive high heel back out of her mouth.

Have I combined enough of my favorite rants yet? No? Hmmm.

Well, ok, then, it’s time to ask the real question–why are all the wishful thinkers and the profiteers who feed off them so hung up on antioxidants? Is there a real medical basis for it, other than that vitamins are actually important in moderate doses?

What does nutrition research have to say about antioxidants in general? Aren’t they the answer to life’s persistent questions (sorry, been listening to Mr. Keillor again), and if so, can’t you put them in the ketchup? Won’t they prevent cancer, ingrown toenails, bad breath and lousy manners?

As it turns out, the answer is no, not really. (Especially not the manners.)

Antioxidant means “keeps oxygen from attaching to Molecule A, removes oxygen from Molecule A, or inactivates the oxygen on Molecule A by attaching something else to it to stabilize it and make it less reactive”. That’s basically it. Oxidant, on the other hand, means “attaches oxygen to Molecule A or makes the oxygen atom already on it more reactive, as by removing a hydrogen atom”. There’s no really clearcut moral superiority to either set of these chemical processes. Your body conducts both–sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.

It’s true that quite a lot of damage can be caused by oxidation. Too much cholesterol and saturated fat swimming around in your blood vessels, sticking to the inner walls in patches and then oxidizing (ie, the fatty stuff gets sticky and hardens), or perhaps oxidizing first and then sticking. The patches of buildup intrude into the blood vessel walls, increasing inflammation and damage especially if they start to peel back off. Those can produce blood clots and trigger heart attacks and strokes.

But all vegetables and fruits with vitamins C or E (some of the Bs as well, I think) can deliver antioxidants. The question is whether increasing the amount of antioxidants in the bloodstream helps directly or not. It probably helps some but it’s not the whole story. If so, all those expensive vitamin and antioxidant supplements they sell at Whole Foods and the like would have shown some kind of clear, overwhelmingly obvious benefit in large clinical trials, but they mostly haven’t. Neither have megadoses of vitamin C and so on. In some cases they seemed to a few years ago, the food industry went nuts over pomegranates and acai and tocopherols (vitamin E) and chia seeds and so on,  and then some of the research was reexamined and found wanting or the overdoses harmful.

On the other hand, there are plenty of cellular processes that require oxidation. Think of the peroxide-like chemicals that help break down worn out blood cells so the waste products can be flushed out and you don’t build up a bad case of jaundice and look like one huge yellowing bruise.

And the biggest oxidative process of all–metabolizing the food you eat. If you didn’t oxidize the carbohydrates you eat during the Krebs cycle, a model of the superior eukaryote lifestyle, you’d get only a small fraction of their energy out. Like those poor inefficient anaerobic bacteria and yeasts you learned about in high school biology class (at which point one of the bacteria posing as your classmates always pointed at another and snickered).

Not to say that eating antioxidants is bad, but that each process has its right place.

Most likely, the benefit of eating more vegetables and fibrous foods as part of a whole foods kind of diet lies in the combination of vitamins, minerals, fiber, low calorie density and variety, along with the assumption that when you eat more veg and whole foods, you eat less meat and saturated fat and highly processed food, and that reduction really is proven to help reduce atherosclerosis. At the culinary end of the scale, eating fresh vegetables–particularly raw, crunchy ones–helps reset your palate and appetite away from the relentless stodge.

You don’t need to shop the superfoods lists to achieve that. Eating the basic categories of whole fresh vegetables and whole grains and legumes and so on is probably just as good and a lot cheaper. It also helps to exercise daily so the blood keeps circulating and washing the crud off the inside of your arteries before it builds up.

Why are people so gullible about magic-bullet nutrition claims? Somehow what started out as a series of modest beneficial effects in actual diet research studies has turned into a cult must. The current obsession with antioxidants and phytochemicals (and selenium, which is quite a bit less reasonable) would have you believe they’re far more important than the basic nutritional requirements of water, calories, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins and the major minerals.

Let’s put this back in perspective. Those first three items, starting with water, are the things food must deliver so you don’t die within a couple of days. Everything else is somewhat more flexible–you might get pellagra and the like if you don’t get enough balanced protein or B vitamins, say if you eat an all-corn-only kind of diet, or rickets if you don’t get enough vitamin D or sun exposure (in November UK media reported a resurgence of rickets cases among middle class children as well as the poor) but you won’t actually die if you don’t let it go on for months. If you don’t get enough fiber, you’ll have digestive problems, possibly at both ends. Not enough vitamin C? you’ll bruise more easily. Iron–anemia and fatigue. Calcium–bones, teeth, muscle function. Potassium? Magnesium? blood pressure and muscle function, probably kidney and other organ functions as well.

Lycopenes? Resveratrol? Other mystery phytochemicals and antioxidants? So you’re missing out on heirloom or sundried tomatoes and wine and various berries, and your triglyceride profile isn’t as optimum as it would be if you had more fancy tomatoes (the regular clearly aren’t special enough) and wine and berries and so on in your life. Neither is your bank account that of the optimum-looking model posing somewhere in that magazine article. Life is hard.

So the superfoods criteria are more than a bit skewed as far as I can tell, and not in the direction of commonsense nutrition or strong scientific evidence but rather in the direction of fantasy, exotism and the faint cha-ching of the cash register as another gullible customer pays $4 or so for a box of cereal sprayed with the supplement of the week or else pays just about the same for a little pouch of dried acai or goji berries and then eats the whole thing in a few mindless minutes as though they were raisins. Which they kind of are.

And maybe we shouldn’t make such a religion substitute of it. That means not calling anything a superfood. And not paying superfood prices for snacks.

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