Unless you have been living under a rock, you would’ve been swamped with news about- super foods and functional foods. One may wonder which is which, so as to gobble them up!
As it turns out, you might be asking the wrong question. Public understanding needs to keep up with these private marketing techniques. So, in this article, we will cover the two terms, their trends and what savvy consumers like us, need to know.
History: Their Story…
Around the same time the iPhone was thought of, apples went out of business.
You and I admit, with KFC, McD’s, Coke, Cheese, Pizza and the lot, emphasizing the importance of consuming a diet low in saturated fat, and high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and stroke were inevitable.
Scientists also began to identify physiologically active components in foods from both plants and animals (aka phytochemicals & zoochemicals) at that time. These components could potentially reduce the risk of these chronic lifestyle diseases.
These events, united with an aging, a quick fix health-conscious population, changes in food regulations, numerous technological advances and a market ripe for the introduction of health-promoting products, coalesced in the 1990s to create this new trend of superfoods and functional foods.
Definitions: What’s what?
There is no scientific or regulatory definition for a ‘superfood’. It is rather just a health marketing term used to describe a food with a ‘superior’ nutritional composition, and it is a term one shouldn’t happen to like. If the superfood helps us to meet our requirements for a particular vitamin or a mineral or a fatty acid, that’s great. But that is all that’s there to it.
You might find it interesting to know that Functional food is a canopy under which nutraceuticals, health supplements, individual vitamins or minerals and plant/animal extracts, exist. When a food is labelled as any of these terms, they are not a marketing gimmick unlike a superfood. In fact, they are called so since a regulatory body (FSSAI) has scientifically established sets of nutrient compositions for each of the above terms.
Superfoods: Pros & Cons
There is no standard criteria or an approved list of superfoods. One could call the ‘Finger Millet’ or Ragi, from India a superfood because of its high fiber, calcium and phytochemical content.
‘Super foods’ worldwide are mostly international foods such as kale, chia seeds, and quinoa. They have come into India at the cost of our rich variety of Indian foods. Lest we forget, people used to come to India in search for spices & food items, these superfoods have existed in India for centuries. In India, the label superfood is being associated with the forgotten foods like millets, amaranth, basil seeds and the likes.
For Example: Chia is purely a product of the marketing efforts of the West. Compositionally, Chia is similar to Basil. Both are rich source of omega 3 fatty acid and dietary fiber. Both swell and become a gel in liquid. However, when it comes to price, Chia seeds cost a whopping Rs. 350 (250g) compared to Basil seeds, priced at Rs.145 (250g).
There are many such examples- Groundnut Oil & Olive Oil, Gojiberry & Amla, Kale & Cabbage or Millets & Oats.
Technically, any food one chooses has its own benefits, so why name them to be superior to another? A horse could never win at swimming against a shark, could he?
Functional Foods: Pros & Cons
Functional foods go beyond meeting basic nutritional needs in order to enhance or improve a physiologic function or reduce the risk for a known disease. Functional foods are more holistic in nature or nutria-dense, tailor-made for particular diseases.
An example would be papaya leaf extract capsules for someone affected with dengue. Since one may not be able to eat Kilos of the leaf all together, a high dose extract in a capsule would be convenient. High Energy-Protein formulae for malnourished or low birth weight children would be another example.
Many people have unrealistic expectations about functional foods thinking that they will be protected from chronic diseases and other ailments. They may eat higher than a normal or a recommended dose of these nutri-dense foods on top of a poor diet.
Although many functional foods may hold promise for public health, you should be cautious about one thing. A superfood is not an extract, powder or a single nutrient, it is a whole food (unprocessed) so the chance of toxicity through a bioactive component present in the whole food is once in blue moon. However, a functional food not consumed as advised, could be toxic.
Analyze this. If one wants the benefits of garlic or neem, one would need to eat an entire of 2 – 3 garlics or an entire branch of a neem tree in order to attain the same concentration, the extract would have to offer as a functional food.
To Sum It Up!
We know there is no magic potion for any disease or disease prevention.
Somehow these ‘Clark Kent’ foods have been defined as panaceas.
You might be shocked to know that as much as these bioactive nutraceuticals do well to particular parts or functions of the body, on a higher amount (dose) or long run (frequency) tend to vitalize negative cells in the same way (malignant cells or foreign bodies). High amount of turmeric is a carcinogen.
It truly is a challenge to shop for groceries today. The labelling of foods currently are full of glamour and lures us in to buy them. However, their effect is masked because of inconsistent dietary habits throughout the day.
These terminologies used, lead the consumers to think that if they have one superfood or a functional food mix, (perceived as an antidote to an unhealthy diet), they need not eat mindfully otherwise. These terms tend to detract one of the crux of healthy nutrition, which is to choose a diversity of food, a colorful plate, if you will.
So if you want to keep the super in superfoods or the functionality in functional foods alive, you must incorporate them in your daily healthy diet along with an active life.