Sunday, August 12, 2018

Why I Don't Promote Superfoods

Disclaimer: I'm feeling extra frisky and real about food stuff right now because I discovered Anthony Warner’s book The Angry Chef’s Guide to Spotting Bullsh*t in the World of Food: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating while at Powell’s, and just spent a week talking and thinking about food justice.

Since declaring myself a student of human nutrition 7 years ago and even more since graduating, one of the most frequent questions I'm asked is “have you heard about ~insert “super food” here~? I eat it every day and… ~person goes on to list incredibly vague and predictable benefits that would naturally come along with increasing their consumption of plain old water or literally any kind of fruit or vegetable~”.  Cue smiling and nodding as I say “I mean yeah I love açaí bowls but they're expensive so I just stick to Kirkland Signature’s frozen three berry blend”.

If you haven't figured out my opinion on this topic at this point, join me in this activity and continue reading below:

Go ahead and take a minute to search the tag “super food" on Instagram. What do you see? Açaí bowls, pitaya, matcha, chia seeds, quinoa… Perfectly assembled, lushly colorful, and wildly “exotic” looking dishes promoted as a magical, superior food that will bring you new vitality that things like apples, oranges, and tomatoes can't. And while these “super food” recipes are generally healthy, they carry their own toxicity that affects and exploits the communities who traditionally use or produce “super foods”, and perpetuates the idea that truly healthy food is an expensive luxury. In fact, “super foods” are just what I consider to be one of the most ingenious (and diabolical) marketing ploys in all of history.

Western “Super Foods" are Other Cultures’ Sacred and Staple Foods.

Quinoa is the first food that comes to mind when I think about this. Quinoa has been a staple crop in the Andes mountain region for thousands of years. The indigenous people in this region have used it for feeding livestock and themselves and it is considered the “mother of grains” by the Incas. Clearly, they knew how incredible quinoa was long before nutrition science was even a thought. But wouldn't you know, when Spanish colonists arrived, quinoa was deemed “Indian’s food” and replaced with wheat. Understanding this history and the history of other foods is important in knowing that no, no one “discovered” (or rediscovered) quinoa or any other “super food". They have always been there, and I hope that they will remain and the cultural significance of these foods will never be erased and replaced.

“Super Food” Production is Environmentally Unsustainable and Workers are often Exploited.

One of the reasons I stopped eating meat two years ago was because of the heavy burden large-scale agriculture has on land and natural resources, and for the treatment and conditions workers in the meat industry experience. However, even plant-based foods suck up plenty of resources on their own, and it's no secret that migrant workers in agriculture have been heavily taken advantage of and abused for decades now. Growing up in Arizona, even as a child, as we would drive past fields of watermelon or lettuce in the middle of the day in July, I always thought of how awful it must be to be directly under the sun for so long but still have little to show for the work you were doing. Unfortunately, unless you've grown it yourself or source your food from a an ethical local farmer, most of the food anyone eats anywhere in the world today is very likely the product of the exploitation of another human. Avocados, for example (I know, I know), take up massive amounts of water in California, and avo farmers in Mexico are under control of drug cartels. Often times, when a “super food” is commercialized, the original community who consumed it is no longer able to afford their own product. Here in Hawai’i, for example, it's cheaper for coffee farmers to purchase others’ coffee than to use their own.

“Super Foods” Create and Promote Classist Ideas in Food

I've heard it many times in conversation: “bougie” restaurants serving “Buddha bowls” overflowing with quinoa and locally-grown sprouted peas, açaí bowls topped with going berries and ancient grain granola, free-range grilled chicken breasts artfully sliced and resting on a bed of baby kale. There's an air of exclusivity and superiority because a restaurant uses buzzwords, hangs air plants from fishing line and uses windows instead natural lighting. Now, I do appreciate that oftentimes, restaurants like this are more expensive because they are trying to source ingredients from farms that treat their workers with dignity and pay fair wages, but to market it (and it really is all marketing) as the only true way to be healthy is flat out wrong. I've had many a conversation with concerned parents and peers about how they can't eat healthy because it's too expensive. And what I've realized is that what we consider “poor people's food” is also what we consider “unhealthy” or of low nutritional or culinary quality. I'm always the first to remind people that at one point in America’s history, lobsters were food for animals (seriously), prisoners, and the poor. Lobsters then were no different than lobsters now. There are just less of them (thanks, overfishing) and now they're considered a delicacy. Think back on quinoa being “Indian’s food” but is now $6 per pound compared to brown rice averaging $2.50 per pound. And for the record, brown rice has 5 grams of protein per cup, compared with 4.4 grams in quinoa. Neither grain is “superior” to the other, but the accessibility of the grains is different, and quinoa is trendy, so it ends up more expensive. Does this mean we should produce more quinoa so everyone can have it? Not necessarily. That would take up even more resources that we really don't have to use. Instead, creating awareness of how amazing the “everyday”, accessible food is that is already being over-produced really is. And while shelf-stable versions like grains and beans are by far the most affordable, fresh foods can be accessible, as well. And the availability of beautiful, healthy, every day food is different in every community. In Arizona, kale was one of our top crops and I could get amazing, organic kale for 99 cents a bunch whenever I wanted. So that is what I encouraged people to eat as a green if they enjoyed eating it. However, in Hawai'i, conventional kale can be as much as $5 per bunch, so if someone was trying to budget for food, I honestly would never recommend kale as something you “need”. The objective, nutritional value of the kale hasn't changed, but the availability of it has. So I choose more locally available “staple” crops now that I live in Hawai’i. The idea of “super foods” suggests that without these very specific types of foods in your diet, you're missing some magical nutrient and it will be all your fault when you die an early death because you didn't (see: couldn't afford to) make it a staple in your diet. That idea is NOT true, by the way.

I could go on about this forever, and I have in the past, so if you're curious to know more about my feelings about what constitutes a healthy food, check into my past posts on both my Instagram and on the written blog. A good place to start are my posts “What Is Health” and “What is Healthy Food”.

Finally, please do understand that I'm not saying you can't or shouldn't consume these types of foods (not really my place). It's obvious by a quick glance at my Instagram feed that I do eat a lot of these foods, but you'll never see me promoting them as superior to another food or a necessity to have a complete diet, but rather an option to try if you have the means to do so. I firmly believe thay food is one of the best ways to connect people and learn about other cultures. But I do encourage you to remain mindful and understand where they come from, their value outside of America's “super food/diet culture”, how to source them ethically and responsibly, and know that when it comes to whole foods, just like people, no food is superior - rather, every food has components that are important and useful, and we need a variety of these foods to nourish and sustain our bodies optimally.

Also, learning the history of all types of foods is super interesting all on its own. I very much encourage you to research into the origins of food we consider “common” today. For example, potatoes are pretty significant culturally for both my Irish and Latin roots. Also, I believe that our bodies probably function best when given foods that our ancestors ate, both because of genetics and the practices surrounding the food itself.

For more information on how to create and engage in a more fair food system, check out these links: