'Superfood' a marketing term, not a scientific one

The term is usually taken to mean that the food being referred to imparts some sort of health benefit beyond simple nutrition.

Joe Schwarcz 5 minute read June 3, 2022

These days you can hardly stroll down the nutrition aisle in a bookstore or browse through a magazine without encountering “superfoods.” The term has no legal definition, but is usually taken to mean that the food being referred to imparts some sort of health benefit beyond simple nutrition. While the description of a food as being super, from the Latin meaning “above,” is relatively recent, the belief that some foods are above others in their desirable properties is ancient.

As early as 2000 BC, the Chinese deemed garlic to be a digestive aid and the Greeks used it to energize soldiers in battle and enhance performance by the early Olympians. Egyptian pharaohs are said to have provided garlic to builders of the pyramids for extra strength. The famous Ebers Papyrus, dating to around 1500 BC, recommends “half an onion and the froth of beer as a delightful remedy against death.” Hippocrates recommended lentils as a treatment for ulcers, and the Roman physician Galen in his treatise “On the Powers of Food” described how the body’s “four humours” could be affected by diet. The idea that these humours, namely, yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm, were the key to health did not wane until the 18th century when James Lind’s demonstration of curing scurvy with citrus fruits and Lavoisier’s discovery of metabolism laid the foundations of modern nutritional science.

Justus von Liebig’s determination of food being basically a combination of fats, carbohydrates and protein shifted focus from the four humours to the chemical composition of food as a determinant of health. The linking of physiology to diet also saw the emergence of gurus who began to promote specific foods for health. In the United States, Sylvester Graham advocated a diet of vegetables and coarse grains, and in 1837 even opened a “Graham provision store” in Boston, the country’s first health food store. A disciple, James Caleb Jackson, introduced “granula,” a bran-rich flour baked and broken into little nuggets that was not only supposed to be healthy but also served to deter people from “self-pleasuring,” a practice deemed to be injurious to health. Another Graham devotee, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, introduced yogurt as a health food, and in the 1940s, J.I. Rodale ascribed wondrous properties to organic agriculture and promoted an array of dietary supplements.

Thus, the foundations for “superfoods” had been laid, but the first use of the exact term is a bit of a mystery. There is a claim that a poem published in a Jamaican newspaper during the First World War used the word in reference to wine, and apparently an article published in Alberta in the Lethbridge Herald in 1949 described a certain muffin as “a superfood that contains all the known vitamins and some that had not been discovered.” Maybe so, but a Google search fails to find the Jamaican poem or the muffin article. Bananas took on the mantle of “superfood,” without being so-called, when an article by Dr. Sidney Haas appeared in 1924 on treating celiac disease in children with a diet of bananas, milk, broth, gelatin and a little meat. At the time it was not known that the disease was an adverse reaction to gluten and bananas got the credit. The diet worked not because it included bananas, but because it excluded gluten.

When it comes to implanting “superfoods” in the public mind, I would argue that the somewhat dubious credit should go to British osteopath and naturopath Michael van Straten, a prolific writer of “natural health” books and host of Bodytalk, a long-running radio show. In 1990, he published Superfoods in which he ascribes therapeutic and disease preventative properties to apples, broccoli, onions, nuts, avocados and a host of others. He followed up with a number of other “super” books, with the alluring titles, Super Juice, Super Soups, Super Fast Foods, Super Boosters, Super Herbs,” and for those who don’t eat the superfoods, Super Detox.

Van Straten’s ideas about superfoods were germinated by a Swiss health tonic, Bio-Strath, invented by German chemist Walter Strathmeyer. He began to recommend this to his patients in the 1960s. and based on their reports of enhanced energy and resolution of all sorts of health problems, he started a company to import and market the product. Bio-Strath is a blend of a variety of medicinal plants and brewer’s yeast that is rich in the B vitamins. It was this concoction that managed to propel van Straten to fame in a curious way.

Barbara Cartland was at the time already a super famous writer of romance novels, eventually publishing some 723 titles and selling more than a billion books. Despite having no scientific education at all, she also ventured into the area of nutrition and described how she took up to 100 dietary supplements a day.

In 1964, Cartland wrote an article about being depressed due to the death of her husband. In response, Van Straten sent her a couple of bottles of Bio-Strath that spawned a long friendship. The duo even opened an organic health food shop, and when Cartland was asked to be a guest on a radio program about food along with five professors, she only agreed if van Straten could come along. He must have performed well because he was soon offered a regular show of his own that paved the way for his series of “super-prefixed” books. A deluge of publications by others followed, touting goji berries, noni juice, chia seeds, kale, quinoa, kefir, spirulina, green tea, seaweed and garlic as being instrumental in keeping the Grim Reaper away.

However, the fact remains that “superfood” is a marketing term, not a scientific one. It is possible to have a healthy diet without including any of the claimed superfoods, and an unhealthy one despite guzzling chaga coffee, maqui berries or tiger nuts. The only food that can legitimately be called a superfood is whatever Superman eats.

joe.schwarcz@mcgill.ca

Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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