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Applying Healthy Skepticism to Healthy Foods

• July 26, 2011 • 4:00 AM

When superfoods like blueberries, pomegranates, açai, green tea sound a little too amazing, it might be time to take a closer look.

Summertime: outdoor concerts, beaches, barbecues. I don’t know about you, but my picnic basket is going to be filled with blueberries, pomegranates, açai, green tea, omega-3-laden fish and organic probiotic yogurts. This is the summer to start increasing my antioxidants and live longer.

Or so I thought before I rediscovered my critical thinking skills hiding on the bottom of the grocery cart.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to improve the way we eat. In July 2011, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District stopped serving chocolate or strawberry flavored milk, which has about the same amount of sugar as soda. This follows similar bans in places like Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colo., Minneapolis and San Diego. Along with eliminating breaded foods (like corn dogs and chicken nuggets), these are reasonable moves given childhood obesity and diabetes rates, and provide a symbolic nudge to all of us.

Watching what we eat and curbing fatty, salty and caloric foods, exercising more and not smoking are essential steps. Unfortunately, they require day-in and day-out vigilance. So, believing that a variety of magic bullet “superfoods” will solve our health problems and correct decades of disastrous dietary decisions, while an attractive hope, deserves skeptical investigation.

Many people like to believe that antioxidants are the key to longevity. We think that simply adding blueberries, red wine and dark chocolate to our diet will do the trick. As Barry Glassner points out in The Gospel of Food, these foods typically provide sensual and aesthetic pleasure, thereby increasing the production of endorphins, resulting in a cheerful demeanor. That alone can be a reasonable explanation of why we may be living longer, rather than attributing causation to the antioxidant foods alone.

Indeed, if antioxidants were sufficient to preserve our lives, Glassner points out, then consuming more packaged foods with the additives BHT and BHA — fat soluble antioxidants — should work just as well. Cocoa-covered BHT, anyone? [class name=”dont_print_this”]

Skeptic's Cafe

SKEPTIC'S CAFE
Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

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We’ve been enamored of fad “superfoods” for some time (and just as opposed to “supervillain” foods like high-fructose corn syrup. In the late 1980s, oat bran was the magic bullet, although there may be a resurgence in sales given its central role in the popular French “Dukan Diet” making in-roads in many countries. And don’t leave out blueberries and how they reportedly reduce coronary disease, limit obesity, lower bad cholesterol, stave off Alzheimer’s, prevent cancer, improve cognitive skills, fight aging and combat E. coli, as one website points out. Let’s pause as we bake some blueberry oat bran muffins made with real cane sugar.

Today, we hear more about such fruits as pomegranate and açai (pronounced ah-SIGH-eee) and their amazing health benefits. A single study found that men treated for prostate cancer who drank pomegranate juice daily for two years showed a decline in a blood protein related to the disease. Pom Wonderful juice claimed it improved circulation and cardiovascular health, not to mention benefits for erectile dysfunction, but the FDA accused the company of violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by marketing its pomegranate juice as treatments for diseases.

Açai — what an Oprah show labeled the “world’s No. 1 superfood” — Superfood is a berry harvested in the rainforests of Brazil. Claims that it contains an unusually high amount of antioxidants lead people to embrace the fruit in all sorts of forms and disguises: freeze-dried capsules, vitamins, organic Kosher puree, juice, sorbet, ice cream, chocolate, tea, cereal, smoothies, and — my personal favorite — dark chocolate covered açai with blueberries. Eating all these açai will purportedly increase libido, promote glowing skin and hair, support the immune system, reduce pain, lead to healthy sleep, rejuvenate the body and mind, possibly kill cancer cells, and act as an anti-inflammatory.

Whew! And that’s leaving out what so many scam Internet marketers claim for açai: losing weight. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has warned consumers that claims of weight loss from açai have not been supported by research.

What is it about these foods that supposedly work miracles? Is it the anthocyanins, chlorogenic acid, catechins, pterostilbene, or resveratrol doing the magic? If so, why not just take a single pill with megadoses of these ingredients and be done with it? Some argue that these antioxidants only work synergistically with other compounds found in the foods themselves and are not effective in pill form when isolated from other naturally occurring ingredients.

Besides, to have any impact at all on our health, we would have to consume extraordinary amounts of these foods. To get enough resveratrol, for example, you have to drink anywhere from 3 to 40 liters of red wine a day. Crack open that bottle — or is it a barrel?

The key to unraveling the various claims is a healthy skepticism and a critical reading of research. In 2007, the European Union banned the use of the term “superfood,” which had been applied to more than 100 different foods, none having research supporting their health benefits. As a rule of thumb, any food that supposedly solves a large list of health problems — from Alzheimer’s to zits — should immediately be regarded with suspicion. Consumers need to review who is sponsoring the research and ask if it is published in a professional journal where the scientific methodology presumably has been vetted.

Often, claims are based on a single study, occasionally anecdotal, so we need to seek research that replicates the findings. In the meantime, focus on what is considered the best health plan: a balanced diet, mixing a rainbow of foods in reasonable portion sizes. And if you happen to like blueberries, green tea or red wine, then treat yourself — just don’t fool yourself.

The simplicity of consuming a single superfood has appeal, especially if it has an exotic image. These are, after all, Brazilian rainforest berries, not sprouts from Brussels, in the picnic basket! Dare we yearn for the time long ago when a simple apple a day was enough to keep the doctor away?

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Peter M. Nardi
Peter M. Nardi, Ph.D, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of "Doing Survey Research: A Guide to Quantitative Methods.”

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