Experts weigh in: How healthy or risky are superfoods?

  • Fitter and healthier with exotic root powder, berry smoothies or seaweed bars – so-called superfoods are advertised with all sorts of advantages compared to conventional foods.
  • “Healthy or risky?” asks an event specialist.

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See better, reduce pain and stress, increase brain function. In addition, there is talk of an anti-HIV effect, the alleviation of diabetes and the death of cancer cells. And it is also said to be an aphrodisiac for women. All this, and much more, in a single product.

Apparently anyway. If you search for so-called superfoods on the Internet, you can find information like this about a tea. A few more clicks: a Dubai-based online store advertises 250 grams of bright green barley grass powder for just under €26, which has been “energized with the flower of life”. What that means is not explained further.

Superfoods: what is that anyway?

For several years, a wide variety of products have been labeled in this way, often associated with supposedly particularly good properties. And indeed, according to a survey, around one in two people in Germany see it as part of a health-conscious diet. These are rarely fresh products, more often they are powders, concentrates or other shelf-stable products.

Criticism also comes up again and again. This is reflected in the title of an event where experts will exchange ideas on June 30 and July 1, 2022 in Berlin: “Super(?)foods and dietary supplements: risky or healthy?” The Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) invited.

First of all: there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to the question posed. Whether superfoods are healthy or even recommended depends on the individual product. However, some experts who will speak in Berlin ask for a critical look in advance. Already at the end of 2020, the BfR spoke of a superfood study that was often insufficient for health evaluation.

Superfood is a “pure marketing term”

The German Food Association clarifies upon request: Superfood is not a legally defined term nor does this term include claims about the effects of food on health. “It’s purely a marketing term.”

Regardless of this, superfoods would have to comply with the same legal framework and quality and safety standards as other foods. “Regardless of whether it’s apples, yogurt or chia seeds, all foods must be safe, otherwise they may not be marketed,” he said.

However, Peter Nick, professor of cell biology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), came across products during the investigations that he did not consider safe, he said. With his conference in Berlin he wants to make clear the need to act.

“Superfoods often come from a relatively exotic environment, where they are integrated into a traditional nutritional system, sometimes also a healing system such as Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine.” With the export of the niche to a global market, a lot of knowledge about botany and dosage is lost; that’s when the problems started.

Authenticity check with genetic fingerprint

In some cases, the quantities of plants grown in the region alone are not sufficient for the demand in industrialized countries such as Germany and the US, says Nick. This could lead to (fake) counterfeiting: cheaper products sold under the name of the authentic product. According to the scientist, at least eight different types of oilseeds are marketed under the term chia.

Originally grown in Mexico, growers in other countries have jumped in in the wake of the hype of recent years. This is not transparent to the end user.

“Businesses and consumers should be more skeptical, importers check their raw materials,” Nick said. There are often colloquial names for traditionally used products, but there are no uniform scientific names, which can cause confusion.

To figure this out, Nick’s team works similarly to the police on criminal searches: investigators read the genetic fingerprints of plants and check the results against databases. According to Nick, such analyzes should be part of quality assurance.

According to the KIT expert, mix-ups can pose a health risk. In examining chia smoothies, for example, his team found basil seeds instead of chia seeds. “Because of the high levels of a toxic substance, something like this should not happen,” the professor said.

He also sees dangers in ever-changing tea trends. According to the analysis, a variety that years ago was advertised as very healthy many times did not even contain the supposed miracle substance that was in the packaging. In one product there was no harmless substitute, but clove leaves, which could be critical for pregnant women. “It just can’t be like that,” Nick said.

The hype often starts on the internet.

Aside from such risks, experts also describe problems in enforcing applicable law when it comes to product claims. According to the food association in Europe, a regulation regulates which nutrition and health claims can be used after the study status has been reviewed and after approval by the legislator.

However, texts like the one described at the beginning can be found on the Internet. Julia Sausmikat, who deals with the subject at the North Rhine-Westphalia consumer advice center, speaks of the lack of recourse against inadmissible health promises on the Internet, it is a practically law-enforcement-free space.

Food control authorities are overloaded. “It is almost utopian to want to control everything.” Many providers are based outside of Europe, so the German authorities are legally toothless.

Companies are increasingly relying on influencers to market superfoods and dietary supplements. These could reach tens of thousands in one go. “When a product is in the supermarket, the trend actually ends. The hype happens before that,” Sausmikat said.

According to the nutritionist, in our times of self-optimization and increased health awareness, even a banal product like salt can become a superfood: with the right marketing, among other things, which often creates a connection to ancient healing arts or native populance. “This serves to serve the emotions, and sustainability is often suggested as well. Often this cannot be the case due to transport routes.”

Also read: Superfood Cranberries: Why You Should Eat Them Regularly

the eye eats with you

Sausmikat said that superfoods apparently fulfill the need of people in industrialized countries to do something good for themselves in everyday life. “This could also work with a mint tea, but these days it has to be barley grass juice.”

With products like this, you notice that appearance is becoming more and more of a criterion: the juice is bright green and therefore catches the eye, for example, on the Instagram photo platform. A supplier advertises on the Internet that the color of food can be matched to houseplants with powder.

According to Sausmikat, the kilos of corona can hardly be melted away with drinks made only from supposed miracle powders: individual superfoods could not compensate for an unfavorable diet and lifestyle pattern. The consumption centers are not generally against superfoods, but the expert also makes it clear: “The question is what is that really? If you mean local, unprocessed products, there is nothing wrong with that. But with many other products, consumers get their money. of his drawn pockets.”

The German Society for Nutritional Medicine had already emphasized last year that local foods are on a par with well-traveled superfoods like chia, açai or matcha in terms of health value. “From a hygienic, social and ecological point of view, they are even superior to exotics,” he said. (dpa/ari)


Avocado is not only particularly tasty, but also particularly healthy! But what is really in the superfood? Where does the avocado come from and what varieties are there? Is it really such a big environmental sin? Everything you need to know about avocado.


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