I used to take “superfood” powders every day. I was convinced they had incredible health benefits and were an integral part of my healthy diet. I even praised them extensively on this very blog. But now I’ve added a disclaimer to the top of that post I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about my stance on “superfoods”, and its high time I addressed them.
I am going to specifically focus on the same company that I praised so much over a year ago, as I pretty much exclusively used their products, and they are probably the most popular “superfood” company in the UK with a huge social media presence. But this is by no means a direct attack on Organic Burst; this applies to ALL “superfood” supplement companies.
So here is my view on “superfoods” now: I don’t take them, I don’t need them, and I don’t recommend them. Simple as. My diet is balanced and healthy, and I’m doing just fine without adding green pond flavouring to my smoothies. In fact, my bank balance and taste buds are both greatly thanking me for it. I eat food, and I promote a whole foods diet. You’ll see plenty of others do the same whilst also promoting the use of various powders and supplements. Supplements aren’t food, so I find this both odd and slightly hypocritical.
I used to take maca daily in the mornings, and spirulina and chlorella tablets most evenings, especially after alcohol, along with anything green in my green smoothies. I also routinely added baobab and acai to basically anything fruity.
How did I afford this? I didn’t have to. I got them all free – lucky me huh? Perks of being a food blogger. Nowadays, I politely decline (or sometimes just ignore) offers from supplement and “superfood” companies every week. I wonder if I’ll still get those after this post…
So let’s go through some of the popular “superfood” powders so you can make your own mind up about them. I’m not here to force you into anything after all, I’m here to inform.
Spirulina is a cyanobacterium, or blue-green algae, that’s cultivated and dried into a powder. It contains around 60% protein when dried, and is a complete protein unlike most plant sources, which means it contains all the essential amino acids that your body can’t produce. However, if you’re only having a teaspoon (5g) a day (which tastes bad enough as it is) then that’s only 3g of protein at most, which is hardly a major contributor to your daily intake. It apparently “helps weight loss by curbing cravings and preventing overeating”, and while it’s true that protein induces satiety quicker than carbohydrates, 3g isn’t really going to do anything for you except maybe a placebo effect. All the other vague wishy-washy claims mainly relate to B vitamins and iron, but again if you’re having a teaspoon, you’re getting between 1-15% of your recommended intake from this source. You know how you can get more than this for less than 10% of the price? Eat some veggies.
The major reason I used to use spirulina was its claim of being a good source of vitamin B12 – which is usually considerably lacking in vegetarian and especially vegan diets. But spirulina supplements contain predominantly pseudovitamin B12, which is biologically inactive in humans. So no B12 here.
Maca is a root vegetables grown in high altitudes in Peru. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but many will tell you it has a caramel flavour. My relationship with maca began when I decided I didn’t want to be addicted to coffee any more, so I gave it up overnight, and switched to maca in my breakfast instead. Lo and behold, after a few days of headaches, I was fine, and had just as much energy as before. Funnily enough, after I stopped taking maca, nothing changed. Placebo effect? The OB website claims “you get the energy lift without any downside”, yet the amount of times I’ve heard people say they reacted badly when they first tried maca says otherwise. I’ve had to advise so many people to start small with ½ tsp and slowly work their way up because they were having side effects after having a mere teaspoon of it. If I could go back, I’d tell them to avoid it altogether. If something is giving you side effects without benefits – stop taking it!
Another thing maca claims to be good for is as a pre-workout supplement to increase your energy. So do a great many other things like coffee, which costs almost nothing in comparison. Apparently the Incas took maca before battle, but there’s no formal historical mention of this. Besides, just because something is “ancient” and has been used for hundreds or thousands of years doesn’t make it right. Just look at certain aspects of traditional Chinese medicine.
There is limited evidence to suggest that maca might work as an aphrodisiac, but the studies have small sample sizes, and nothing is yet conclusive. There is also only limited evidence to suggest its effectiveness as an adaptogen and balancing hormones, especially for menopausal women. A meta-analysis suggests, again, limited evidence that is inconclusive. To sum up, it’s probably not worth it.
Another type of algae that taste like pond. This time with magical “detoxification” properties. Any time you see the word “detox”, it’s safe to assume it’s a marketing scam. You have a liver; you have a wonderful detoxification system in your body that works beautifully. How do I know this? Because the toilet paper industry isn’t going out of business anytime soon.
As with spirulina, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that its B12 content is worth noting. Don’t force yourself to eat pond, eat food instead!
The antioxidant powerhouse, with some ridiculously high ORAC score. I’ve written a post about antioxidants already, so if you want to know more about those, go check it out.
Lots of vitamin C in this one, which is claimed to “boost the immune system”, “maintain the best alkaline balance”, and “give your immune system support”. There is so much wrong with that sentence. Firstly, does anyone actually know what “boosting” the immune system means in this case? The immune system is so complex (not so complex that experts don’t understand it though), and taking vitamin C isn’t a magical pathogen-repellent. Increasing immune system activity is just as likely to be harmful to a person as beneficial. “Maintaining alkaline balance” just shows a serious misunderstanding of human biochemistry. I’ve ranted and raved about the alkaline diet before, enjoy. Wheatgrass powder also has “alkalising” claims – eugh. Finally, taking high doses of vitamin C isn’t going to do much for your cold. For a cold that lasts 3-5 days, vitamin C will reduce this by a couple of hours at most. Considering the risks of high vitamin C consumption (kidney stones, urinate stones, higher risk of cardiovascular disease), and considering above around 100mg per day you just excrete the excess, it might not be worth it. If you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, you’re getting more than enough vitamin C anyway.
Notice what all of these have in common? They’re all exotic, “ancient”, have vague claims, with little to no scientific evidence to support them. “Superfoods” are entirely a marketing technique. If your diet is varied and healthy, and you yourself are a healthy individual with no chronic conditions that affect how you absorb food, you’re doing just fine. You don’t need supplements (although vegans please get your B12 checked, I’m getting mine checked soon to be on the safe side). If you meet all the above criteria, the chances of you not getting all the micronutrients you need are small. You don’t need to waste your money on expensive powders, just eat food, mainly plants.
As humans we do love some anecdotal evidence, even if it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of science, so I’ll finish with this: I believed in “superfood” supplements, now I don’t. I’m happier now, probably healthier for relaxing more around food, and I’m eating things I actually like the taste of, not because I’ve been told they’re healthy, or because I’ve fallen victim to clever marketing schemes.
I promote a whole foods diet, and that involves eating actual food, not powders.