By Rowan Robinson

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Superfoods – Fact or Fiction ?

We have all seen the headlines with claims that they can cure cancer, reduce ageing and promote weight loss. But what are the scientific facts, legislation, and consumer protections behind the ‘superfood’ stories?

The fact is, for all of our perceived health awareness, we simply don’t know all that much about our food, and we certainly don’t know enough to say exactly what makes a true “superfood”.


The Term “Superfood”

First off, lets look at the term “Superfood”. What does it mean, and what does it take to be one ?

A check of the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “superfood” as :  a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fibre, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.

I’m am reluctantly fine with this definition, although I am a bit concerned with there being no clarity around ;

  1. Who makes the decisions on a food being “rich” in a compound, and ;
  2. In what “compounds” should they be rich in order to be beneficial to your health.

Most importantly there is NO definition of the word that could be considered “legal” in terms of food regulations which means to me the term can be used very liberally in the promotion of food.

I remember my basic training days in 1977 at RAAF Base Wagga Wagga where we spent hours on the parade ground in 30°C+ temperatures doing our marching drills until we got it right.

Beer is a Superfood

And all I could think of was water – lots of water – it was the only thing standing between me and certain death (don’t scoff until you’ve tried it). So does this make water a “superfood” ? It is after all very rich in a compound (the compound being water itself) that is considered beneficial to your health. And if we extrapolate from this, beer is a superfood as it contains 90 – 95% water.

Where Did I Go For Answers?

I reached out for positions and opinions about “Superfoods” from some government departments and reputable peak bodies such as the ACCC, FSANZ, Consumer Affairs Victoria, and the Dietitians Association of Australia in order to give a balanced perspective and where possible a more authoritative understanding.

I have also contacted the State and Federal Health Ministers for comment.

Being food, health, and perhaps advertising related, I looked at what I considered to be relevant government and peak-body websites and searched for the term “superfood. Not one of the following had anything substantive (if anything at all) or any legislation around “superfoods”:

What About Legislation?

Like any good do-it-yourself lawyer I hit the Internet in search of some legal definition and/or criteria that a “superfood” has to meet in order to call itself a superfood.

Before we look at current legislation I would like to draw your attention to an online article published in 2009 by Australian Food News with the headline “Food experts call for stricter law enforcement on “natural” and “superfoods”” (View Article Here). It is clear to me that the key stakeholders in drafting any form of legislation were aware there was nothing concrete around the term “superfood” almost 8 years ago and it appears to me that there have been no changes made nor any clarity given to the term. I looked over the Food Standard 1.2.7 and could find no mention of “superfoods”.

The upshot is – there is no legislation.

If we are to accept the general definition (outlined above), then the inference is that you will derive some form of health benefit by eating or cooking a superfood – so there needs to be a clear legal definition of the word “superfood” in order for it to be used in advertising or as a selling point.

Related Reading

A Retrospective

Health ratings have not been unusual to see over the years, however they have had their fair share of controversies.

Heart Foundation Tick
There was the Heart Foundation tick that started in 1989 when there wasn’t much in the way of guidance for shoppers to make healthy choices. Then two things happened

  • It wasn’t long before nearly every packet on the shelves had a tick of some nature. They weren’t all Heart Foundation ticks, they were just ticks, but they gave the impression of being a “healthier” choice ;
  • And there was the revelation that the Heart Foundation Tick relied on food industry sponsorship – with some notable companies being mentioned such as Nestle, CSR Sugar, and McDonalds – and oddly enough their products were receiving Heart Foundation Ticks. ( Ref 1 | Ref 2 )

Health Star Rating System
The Government-endorsed Health Star Rating System has not necessarily been a glowing success at the start to everybody either ;

  1. Dietitians came out criticising the system, mostly saying that it can lead to choosing products that are processed over better options.

    It encourages marketing of unhealthy or discretionary foods, as healthy options says Deakin University Professor of Public Health Mark Lawrence.

    Many of the items from the five food groups are not packaged, so they don’t display health stars. The actual health message is to eat more of these foods; it’s not that we should try to eat food with more stars, he says.

  2. Add to that the resignation of Alastair Furnival (the then Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash’s chief of staff) after it was revealed he had significant links to the junk food industry (Ref 3)

So these two systems, that have been or are being, run by people we would like to think know what’s best for us, can easily be manipulated with the sight and smell of money. I accept that there are now probably more checks and balances in place to prevent misuse of the systems.

However there is still one glaringly obvious problem with the Health Star Rating System – it is still only “a quick and easy way to compare the nutritional profile of packaged food” – There is nothing available for fresh meat and produce.

And that brings me back to now – The current system doesn’t cover fresh food and the marketing gurus can use the term “superfood” with impunity.

Who Said What

I received the following document via email communication from a representative of the Department of Health on 15.02.2017

A pdf statement from the Department of Health relating to superfoods.

Click to open

Federal Department of Health

I received the following email communication from the Dietitians Association of Australia on 15.02.2017

A statement from DAA outlining a position on superfoods.
  • The word ‘superfood’ has no official definition, and there are no rules around what foods it applies to, so it pays to be wary of the term.
  • Often the term ‘superfood’ is paired with exotic sounding, usually pricey foods, like chia seeds, goji berries, and quinoa.
  • Although many of these are indeed healthy, more accessible and affordable foods are often just as healthy as these. (For example, broccoli vs kale, blueberries vs goji berries).
  • People are busier than ever and want to get the best ‘bang for their buck,’ but in reality, we know there is no one magic food to eat for good health.
  • The best recipe for healthy eating is choosing a variety of whole foods from the core food groups.

Dietitians Association of Australia

I received the following email communication from FSANZ on 16.02.2017

The Food Standards Code does not contain definitions for terms such as superfood. Health claims are voluntary statements made by manufacturers which must be based on food-health relationships that have been substantiated according to Standard 1.2.7 of the Code. There are different levels of health claims and different requirements for manufacturers who wish to use them. You can find out more about these claims   here  .

Fair trading and food laws in Australia and New Zealand require that labels do not misinform consumers through false, misleading or deceptive representations. In Australia, this legislation includes the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) contained in the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, and state and territory Fair Trading Acts and Food Acts. In New Zealand, this legislation includes the Food Act 2014 and Fair Trading Act 1986.

In Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) enforces the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. In New Zealand, the Commerce Commission is responsible for enforcing the Fair Trading Act 1986.

The Federal Department of Health’s Healthy Food Partnership aims to improve the dietary habits of Australians by making healthier food choices easier and more accessible and by raising awareness of better food choices and portion sizes. You can find out more about this initiative   here  . It also important to note that food regulation policy is undertaken by ministers from Australia and New Zealand who make up   the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation  . The Forum has two distinct roles as a decision maker. It must carry out its responsibilities as outlined at the link above, and is also required to be the food regulation system arbitrator. To do this, the Forum must balance food regulation in the bi-national interest with potentially competing views from consumers, from industry and from itself.
FSANZ spokesperson

I spoke with a representative of the Winemakers Federation of Australia and received a followup email on 17.02.2017

As an industry association, we make no claims about wine being a ‘superfood’, and we encourage all our members and the broader industry to abide by the comprehensive food labelling and related regulations regarding health (and any other) claims/descriptions about their products.Winemakers Federation of Australia spokesperson

I spoke with Consumer Affairs Victoria on 15.02.2017

From my conversation it appears that CAV do not have an official position on “superfoods”. If it was not covered by the articles on Misleading or deceptive conduct or Health claims then it would be best to approach the ACCC.

My Opinion

  • The general population is not protected from misuse or misunderstanding of the term “superfood”.
  • A look through search results from Google for “best superfoods” yields results that have no consistency. Admittedly there is some overlap in some “superfood” items if you look through each link.
  • Many of the heavily promoted “Superfoods” are exotic and often very expensive. The average household budget would take a hit if the shopper was to try and include too many of them (or even a few for that matter).
  • For a specific health problem (such as anaemia), necessary dietary changes should be made in consultation with a Health Care Professional – not Dr Wikipedia or the presumption that a marketed “superfood” will do the trick.
  • For general dietary guidance that you feel doesn’t need a GP’s input the best option is to seek the help of an Accredited Practising Dietitian
  • And finally, the guardians of our food regulations, codes, and legislation have left us hanging out to dry while there is no definition of “superfood” for the purpose of sales and marketing (including references made in cookbooks, magazines etc).

I encourage you to please leave your thoughts and comments in the relevant box below.

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