Much has been made of an article in The Observer yesterday about so-called superfoods and their actual dietary value. This follows a stream of new-year commentary denouncing the detox and other pseudo-scientific approaches to dieting. While we at The Devilled Egg very much support myth-busting in all its forms, we felt this poorly-balanced article deserved a short response. We hope you will forgive the insolence.
The author, Dara Mohammadi, opens with the usual criticism of miraculous dietary effects and the lack of any science to support them. He then goes on to suggest that “miracle foods” are popular primarily among simpletons who have been duped by magical thinking and cynical marketing tricks. If that were really true, would these people not be gorging on fast food, popping diet pills and slurping Special K in the mornings to keep themselves slim?
Mohammadi fails to recognise that interest in so-called superfoods goes beyond gullibility; it is part of a broader move by a proactive section of the public to find a more sustainably healthy diet. Since capitalist and state institutions have proved incapable of accomplishing such a feat, is this popular movement not worth encouraging?
Mohammadi correctly diagnoses the problem of invented products with pseudo-scientific properties, designed solely to separate health-conscious people from their cash. Such claims should be examined, and refuted if necessary, at the earliest opportunity. However, the foods under review here are neither new nor invented; they occur naturally and have long been in use outside the mainstream.
In this way the author’s zeal for scientific purity has led him to denounce perfectly good foods just because a few hucksters and hippies have made preposterous claims about them. He would be much better off telling us to avoid milk because recent scientific studies have thrown its unproven health benefits (trumpeted for decades by the dairy industry) into considerable doubt. The fact that almost no one mentions this betrays quite an impressive double standard.
One of the commentators quoted in the article sums up the problem: “As doctors . . . we’ve been more interested in the sexier side of preventing disease – new drugs, stents and operation techniques – and we’ve left the diet arena a little unmanned.” Well, obviously. Doctors are notoriously (and understandably) devoted to medicine and have a history of distancing themselves from dietetics, at least publicly, and treating other commentators in the field with scorn.
Where then should we look for decent, objective information on food and its effects?
Rather than dealing with this important question, Mohammadi limits himself to rejecting a handful of specific claims on the grounds of insufficient research. He then goes on to admit that certain claims do in fact have evidence to support them, but cites the lack of absolute proof as reason enough to ignore them altogether. This is not only lazy journalism; it shows a half-hearted commitment to science.
The article goes on to acknowledge that these foods are probably good for us after all. Just don’t expect a cure for cancer or any other miraculous properties. It is difficult to resist the phrase ‘duh!’ at this point.
Ideally, the health implications of any food should always be clarified by a third party (we would like to see the NHS take a much more prominent role here) and any claims made in a marketing context should be regarded with scepticism. Frankly, we dislike the term ‘superfood’ at The Devilled Egg because it is vague and suggests some sort of magical property. We agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Mohammadi here.
We also agree when he says that diet is extremely complex. All the more reason to approach it with a little more nuance – especially when new ideas emerge which challenge the status quo. Healthy eating may be largely down to common sense, but making it exciting and palatable is not easy, and any foods like chia seeds and coconut oil that may help on both fronts are gratefully received. Discrediting such efforts out of hand, because they are unproven or only 80% accurate, will only serve to entrench attitudes which are, quite literally, unhealthy.
We need to know more about what we eat, and quality journalism can only help in this regard. We only ask that journalists (and Mr. Mohammadi in particular) try to resist sensationalism and over-simplification on such a tantalising topic.
Read the original article here: