The Problem with ‘Superfoods’

Posted by in What if...?

What we eat has changed more in the last 40 years than it has in the previous 40,000. Every time you open a food magazine, people are promoting the latest “superfood” from açai berries and kale to maca and spirulina. Before you hop on board with the newest fad, take a moment to understand the global environmental consequences of eating this way.

What is a ‘superfood’ anyway?

A ‘superfood’ is just sales jargon for any food that is nutrient-dense, with above average antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, enzymes or proteins. As you can image, much of what has been available for years is then a ‘superfood’ such as broccoli, spinach, hempseed or blueberries.

Trendy superfoods are usually exotic plants from the other side of the world, interesting mostly because of their novelty. These expensive, fashionable foods include things like goji berries from China and Tibet; açai, maca, chia, and quinoa from South America; coconut, nonifruit and durian from Southeast Asia; mesquite, agave, and spirulina from Mexico; and chlorella from Japan. In reality, we can all get enough nutrition without consuming novel products shipped from thousands of miles away.

Environmental and social damages

Far too many superfoods are disturbing global agricultural ecosystems. More and more of what we eat in the western world comes with a heavy environmental and social footprint. Even ‘fairly traded’ foods displace local staple food crops and disrupt local traditional diets. Take quinoa, for example. Quinoa is a nutrient-dense grain that comes from the Bolivian Andes, where indigenous peoples have traditionally grown it for thousands of years. With such high demand from western countries, today Bolivians cannot afford to buy quinoa and the people of the region are malnourished as they are now forced to buy refined grains to feed themselves. The region also faces decreased soil fertility as traditional farming methods have changed to meet Western demand.

The real cost of transporting food

Transporting food thousands of miles is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Each year, hundreds of millions of tons of food are shipped around the planet. A typical, modern diet of imported products can use four times the energy and produce four times the emissions of an equivalent domestic diet.

How to eat sustainably

The future is eating locally. Our immediate environment is perfectly capable of producing fresh, natural and highly nutritious foods. Western countries used to eat very well from domestically grown, organic, in-season crops and we still can. There is much we can do to combat local soil depletion. By paying more attention to how we eat and the consequences of our diets, we can reduce waste, reduce environmental damage and seek out more sustainable food sources.

Superfoods are certainly packed with nutrients and are a great way to diversify your diet, but try to keep them as an occasional treat rather than a daily food.

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