‘Superfood’ might not be as super as promised but consumers are still happy to eat it suggests new research conducted by the University of Adelaide and PhD student Jessica Loyer.
Loyer, who has a background in health academia, as well as writing for a health and lifestyle magazine and working for a superfood distributor, focussed her research on the production and consumption of so-called ‘superfoods’, as well as the discourse surrounding their reported health benefits. “I just wanted to question the whole idea of ‘superfoods’,” says Loyer. “All of it is very popular, but little attention is paid to other surrounding issues, like the traditions associated with the foods themselves.” The major outcome of Loyer’s research is a dissection of the motivations behind people consuming superfoods, as well as an ethical examination of how certain superfoods are produced and distributed around the world.
Native to the Amazon rainforest, acai berries are growing popular worldwide
Loyer conducted focus groups with Australian consumers to explore their attitudes and understanding of superfoods. She found those subjects to be surprisingly sceptical of health values associated with superfoods, but were nonetheless dedicated to their consumption. “I was really surprised actually,” she says. “What I found is that even though everyone who responded ate superfoods regularly, they were very sceptical of the associated health benefits. Most people seemed to have the attitude that, ‘It probably won’t hurt, so I’ll do it anyway’.” The term ‘superfoods’ is a marketing construct, Loyer says, and appeals to a deeper concern that resonates with consumers. So many of these foods are associated with an idea of more primitive lifestyles, and that “our diets were healthier back then”.
The Peruvian maca root vegetable is widely marketed as a superfood
“It’s this nostalgic way of looking to the past. You also see it a lot with diets like paleo,” she says. Loyer studied one superfood in particular in her focus on production and distribution: the Peruvian maca plant. Maca is a root vegetable that is typically harvested, dried and rehydrated for use in porridge-like meals in Peru. In the western world where it is marketed as a superfood, maca is imported as powder and used in smoothies or taken in pill form as a dietary supplement. “This is actually really common for superfoods like maca, acai and cacao,” says Loyer, who explains that those foods are often eaten in entirely different contexts and quantities in their countries of origin.
Loyer’s research focussed in part on the production and distribution of maca
While there are few negative health effects to be found consuming those foods in different ways, Loyer believes that concern should be paid to their being sourced ethically. In Peru in particular, Maca’s production is covered by intellectual property laws to protect farmers who produce the plant. As such, maca can only be exported in powder form, since exporting it fresh might see it planted and exploited by other countries to the detriment of those farmers. Loyer sees this as a point of priority in Australia as well, particularly with the rising popularity of Australian native plants and produce. She says she is “curious and concerned about the way it will play out with indigenous foods” amid their booming popularity, and expects to see that popularity grow even more as Indigenous Australian foods start to be marketed under the ‘superfood’ banner.
The trend towards locally sourced and native ingredients is growing not just in Australia, but “the similarity is very obvious” in countries like Peru and Brazil, where chefs like Lima’s Gaston Acurio and Sao Paulo’s Alex Atala have popularised native produce. “On the one hand, it’s a great thing that the chefs bring attention to these native traditions, but there’s also a sort of colonial aspect to it where we need to make sure that the producers are treated properly.” When it comes to the ‘next big thing’ in the world of superfoods, Loyer has some expert advice. “One thing that I think will influence the way we think about foods is a micro-biome perspective,” she says, noting the growing understanding of the human gut being inhabited by thousands of micro-organisms that are crucial to our health. “You’re seeing a lot of pro-biotic products coming out now, and they really focus on the gut.”