Americans fall hard for so-called superfoods. Sales keep skyrocketing for nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables like acai, pomegranate, beets, and goji berries. But most experts agree that the superfoods hype is more a result of marketing quackery than of healthy outcomes. Food isn't medicine, and consumers shouldn't expect any single food to cure what ails them—especially not the chronic ailments that many superfoods are purported to address. Three-quarters of Americans still won't adopt the calorie-modest, balanced diet doctors have long recommended. Instead, we're over-investing billions on the food cure-all du jour. What keeps us reaching for the quick fix?
The Science Is Confusing
Countless diet books and headlines champion particular nutrients' abilities to address specific health concerns. Coffee, dark chocolate, red wine—every day we hear about their high levels of vitamins that prevent cell damage. It's true that, in recent years, nutrition science has become sophisticated enough to begin exploring how singular molecular components in food affect the body. But this research has not yet come close to fully capturing the relationship between diet, anatomy, lifestyle, and health outcomes. Take your antioxidant-stuffed produce drawer: A 2013 summary of decades of research from the National Institutes of Health found that, while "people who eat more vegetables and fruits have lower risks of several diseases … it is not clear whether these results are related to the amounts of antioxidants in vegetables and fruits … or to other lifestyle choices." Around the same time, the Department of Agriculture closed down a database the organization had been using to promote high-antioxidant foods for years. Of course, that hasn't stopped huckster dieticians, food marketers, and credulous journalists from spreading breathless claims on superfoods' behalf.
National Governments Have Skin in the Game
In the 1990s, Japan had a rice problem. Consumption of the grain, one of the country's staple crops, was on the decline. In response, one rice-producing region near Tokyo tried a rebranding, investing in research on the health benefits of what they hoped would be more marketable: big-germ brown rice. Researchers found in big-germ high levels of the amino acid GABA, which purportedly accelerates brain metabolism, decreasing depression and headaches. In 2004, Japan presented these results to the United Nations, inspiring other countries, including South Korea, to make their own major investments in researching, growing, and marketing the "miracle rice." Though the GABA claims don't carry more weight than those about antioxidants, rice consumption soon ceased to decline in Japan, and diet gurus the world over now promote big-germ. Similar government-led development efforts involving loans, grants, and advertising have played a role in the rise of acai, pomegranate, and other homegrown superfood industries worldwide.
Meanwhile, the Food Police Are Handcuffed
Food companies in the United States have always faced a major obstacle: full stomachs. The American population is only growing around 1 percent per year, while our physical capacity to consume food tops out at around 1,500 pounds of food per year. Yet our food supply provides nearly 4,000 calories per day per capita, roughly twice the need of most people. How did the industry convince people to buy more than they needed? In her landmark 2003 book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition & Health, the New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle meticulously documented how the food industry spent decades lobbying government agencies to loosen marketing laws. Legislation in the early 1990s opened the doors for the overly optimistic nutritional claims that make food and supplements sound like medicine to consumers who are concerned about higher rates of chronic disease (and who have decreasing trust in the pharmaceutical industry).
And We're Suckers for Misleading Health Claims in Food Advertisements
We are a society obsessed with the potential harmful effects of eating, according to the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, renowned for his theories on the role that fear and disgust play in modern food culture. Overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of foods in our groceries, and flooded with competing health claims, we can't help but make instinctive food-purchase decisions, subject to the whims of the latest trends and health scares. No wonder that, when confronted with ambiguities in health-based marketing claims, we fill in the gaps with inaccurate inferences, as the Cornell University economist Brian Wansink found in a 2006 study. Food companies bragging about supposed health benefits, such as low calorie count or low cholesterol, create what the influential study dubbed a "health halo," a vague but positive glow that temporarily relieves our food-centered anxieties—at least long enough to get through checkout.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.