Are superfoods really that healthy?

Last updated 11:44 14/11/2012
Pete Evans
ACTIVATE, ACTIVATE: Australian chef Pete Evans was mocked for his superfood diet.
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Superfoods are in the firing line this week after Australian chef Pete Evans was vilified for revealing his taste for expensive ingredients many people would struggle to identify.

Evans, whose daily food intake included alkalised water, activated almonds, maca, coconut kefir and sorghum, was mocked mercilessly on Twitter but said he was inspired by other people's tales of improving their wellbeing through good nutrition.

I'm no stranger to a little wild nutrition experimentation and it's great to hear tales of transformed health by dietary tweaks, and while the stories may all be anecdotal, we hardly need scientific backing to know that fruit and veg are great for us. Lord knows, most of us could use a few more of them.

But, the issue with so many of the so-called 'super foods' is that producers make claims they can't back up, just to jack up the prices. As well as this super foods have sprouted a scary breed of food elitists who pontificate about poached Amish-raised, free-range chicken and micro-greens.

"Often people are getting their evidence from the front of the pack," says dietitian and author Tara Diversi. "They are [often] anecdotal and are massive claims that haven't been researched."

Besides, she would be surprised if Evans ate like he said he did on a daily basis anyway, "To be honest very few celebrities or even health professionals would put their exact diet down [to be published]. I wouldn't.

"Or they wouldn't always eat like that. They're more likely to put down something they aspire to because they know people [will read it] and are going to take advice from them." 

On the other hand, nutritionist and chef Zoe Bingley-Pullin says "kudos to [Evans] for making changes and educating people."

And while she says she personally eats "a lot of these foods," she has to ask, "are these foods going to make you that much healthier or are they just going to make you broke?"


Soaked over night in water to release the enzymes and then dehydrated to reinject the crunch, you can't miss the price difference between activated and 'average' nuts. Activated nuts cost around $24 for 500 grams. But, you can always DIY.

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Many at-home 'activators' like Evans, add a little celtic sea salt for flavour. The current superstar of the salt world, Bingley-Pullin says celtic sea salt is not processed and contains higher levels of manganese, a trace mineral that helps the body form connective tissue, sex hormones and plays a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism.

As for activated almonds, "what we do know is that ... soaking nuts increases the hydration content," Bingley-Pullin says. Protein doesn't contain high hydration levels so it takes longer to digest, she explains. Eating activated nuts "means some people don't have that sluggish digestion feeling."

But, Diversi explains that the extra digestion time isn't a bad thing. "Not necessarily. [While] activated nuts are said to have more enzymes, nutrients and are easier to digest...  the body can process nuts really well already and you want your body to do work to process foods," she says.


Pushed to pickling point with the aid of bacteria, fermented vegetables include sauerkraut, kombu and kim chi. They have lots of beneficial bacteria, Bingley-Pullin says. "They're great for you from a digestive point of view," she explains. "I have sauerkraut in sandwiches or on salad... I love the flavours."

Bacteria are the oldest living organisms on earth, says molecular biologist, Bonnie Bassler in this TED talk, and despite their bad press bacteria can do wonders for us. "They educate your immune system to keep bad microbes out."

If you want to make your own, Sarah Wilson offers a nice recipe and tips here.


Instead of saying he drank alkalised, "Maybe I just should've just said filtered water?" Evans says. "We have a portable mineral pot ($600) water filter which rids tap water from potential carcinogens (chorine, chemicals, bacteria etc).

"I realise there's plenty of controversy around alkalised water, but I would rather choose this option over drinking tap water or bottled water, as it works out cheaper in the long run, and is environmentally friendly."

Neither Diversi or Bingley-Pullin is convinced about alkalised water (around $5,000 for a Kangen Alkaline Water filter). "They say increased alkalinity is easier for the kidneys [to process], but there's no hard data," Bingley-Pullin says. "What's wrong with good, old-fashioned tap water? And maybe a filter for heavy metals."

"Alkalised water doesn't have fluoride," Diversi says. "There's a big camp against fluoride, equally there are people who are advocates. The research doesn't show fluoride is negative.

"Alkalised water is also supposed to have more minerals, but we don't drink water for minerals. We drink it for hydration."


It has been claimed that Apple cider vinegar can cure head lice, aid weight loss and ease digestion.

"People do find digestion better with apple cider vinegar," Diversi says.

"I like apple cider vinegar, " Bingley Pullin agrees. "It increases bile-production [which] is one of the elements that helps us digest food. For me personally it's a little strong on its own. I prefer lemon with water but, I love to cook with it and use it in dressings."

Preliminary studies have found that apple cider vinegar may lower blood glucose levels and high blood pressure. But, the evidence is hardly conclusive and some of the potential risks, when taken in excess, include lowered potassium levels and reduced bone density.


"It's blood-enriching... and high in iodine - which is great for thyroid health - unless you are hyperthyroid," Bingley-Pullin says of spirulina, which costs between $10 and $350). "Just make sure you're not adding in something you don't need."

Diversi is also a fan. Cautiously. "Concentrated greens are high in antioxidants, high in nutrients - goji berries are too. Some people say they feel better [for taking it]. But, you don't want to replace veggies and you can get those nutrients from other foods."

At the end of the day, both Diversi and Bingley-Pullin agree that although these 'super foods' have benefits, they are often prohibitively expensive for most people and their claims do not always add up.

"You never want health to be an exclusive thing," Bingley-Pullin says. "It has to be accessible - it's easy to be healthy by making smart decisions - eating lean proteins, limiting sugar, alcohol and caffeine and lots of whole foods."

As for Bingley-Pullin's initial question of whether it's worth it. Diversi says, ""My whole philosophy is to do 'good enough'. Eat well and eat whole foods - foods you can find naturally... super foods are not unhealthy, but they are unnecessary.

"The answer is it's not going to make you that much healthier."

- Sydney Morning Herald


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Opinion poll

Do you believe eating superfoods makes you healthier?

Yes, I feel so much better when I eat them.

No, it's all a con.

I don't know, I can't afford them.

Vote Result

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