The term “superfoods” (or, sometimes, super-foods) isn’t new. As early as 1912, it was used in England to advertise a mysterious remedy called Umbixa. These small tablets, to be taken four times a day, had truly remarkable powers.
Thin, bony men develop fine manly forms: “scraggy” flat-chested women rapidly acquire that beautiful shapeliness and graceful fullness of figure which is every woman’s ideal.
In the 1920s, the Chicago Tribune carried advertisements for another type of “super-food in the familiar form of a delicious, creamy white bread.” The decade also saw the term applied to milk, canned fish and vegetables, nut margarine, Ovaltine and, here in Australia, even camp pie. The K.R. assured picnickers that the energy they expended in the open air would surely be replenished:
K.R. Camp Pie is the essence of high food value in a small compass. The superfood that will give you super-strength; it will more than replenish the energy that is used, it will add extra energy, and build bone and sinews.
One of the most widely advertised superfoods in the ’20s was raisins, especially in the form of raisin bread.
Later in the century, Sydney’s Truth ridiculed the claims of the Pulvoids Super-Food Co. of Drummoyne. The proprietor, one S. B. Booty, claimed his pills made horses and athletes run faster, caused students to top their classes at school and cured almost any complaint from appendicitis to cancer. And, in 1947, a lecture on superfoods (molasses, wheat germ, thickened milk and powdered yeast) by a follower of the American doctor Gaylord Houser was treated with some scepticism by The Daily Telegraph.
Decades on, and the emphasis was on science. In 1968, scientists were supposedly making a superfood out of grass. And in 1984, the debate was raging about zapping food with radioactive rays to keep it fresher. “Is it a tomato? Is it a zucchini? No, it’s Superfood” the Sydney Morning Herald told readers.
But it was in the last decade or so that we became seriously obsessed with superfoods. In his book, published in 2011, David Wolfe took a look at many of the nutrient-rich foods that can, supposedly, have a dramatic effect on our health and wellbeing. The blurb for the book says:
In this lively, illustrated overview, well-known raw-foods guru David Wolfe profiles delicious and incredibly nutritious plant products such as goji berries, hempseed, cacao beans (raw chocolate), maca, spirulina, bee products, and a host of others… This accessible guide presents persuasive arguments, based on sound science, for the pivotal role of superfoods in promoting nutritional excellence, health and well-being, beauty enhancement, sustainable agriculture, and the transformation of diet, lifestyle, and planet.
Not all superfoods are novel – we’ve been eating things like kale, blueberries, mushrooms and nuts for years. Others are less familiar. Chia seeds are touted for being rich in fibre, Omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients – that’s if you can handle the rather gelatinous texture. Quinoa (we all know how to say “keen-wah” now, don’t we) is great for protein, fibre, B vitamins and folate. With goji berries and acai berries, it’s their anti-oxidant qualities that make them super.
Since Wolfe’s book, there have been many other superfood books and cookbooks. Supermarkets are getting in on the act, too, and not just in the health food aisle. Coles has a Superfood Slaw Mix with cabbage, carrot, beetroot, kale, daikon and celery. Woolworths has a stir fry mix called Superfood Vegetables while, in their health food section, you can find a whole range of branded superfoods including Native Superfood Blend Kakadu Plum and Hemp.
It turns out, you can have too many superfoods. The danger is overloading on the oxalates found in some leafy greens, sweet potatoes, turmeric, chia seeds, raspberries, and almonds. The result can be kidney stones and a range of other painful conditions.
These days, you won’t find many claiming that superfoods will cure cancer or add curves to “scraggy flat-chested women”. But most dieticians caution against attributing too many superpowers to specific foods, arguing instead for that old-fashioned regime – a balanced diet.