Magic beans? ... Cacao contains high levels of antioxidants. Photo: Istock Photo
With each new 'superfood' supplement on the market we are delivered a deliciously tantalising promise. We are told we will transform from mere mortals to super men and women with enhanced brainpower, shrinking waistlines and sexual voraciousness along with the vital energy of a fire ball.
Functional foods and their potent reduction into powder, pill and liquid form are not just foods, marketing campaigns tell us, they are foods with benefits.
And it seems that many of us are happy to have food with benefits in our lives.
Over 50% of Aussies regularly take supplements and it is a billion dollar industry with a growth rate of around five to eight per cent annually.
But, articles written about shonky promises of miracle cures has lead many to question the virtues of superfood supplements as a whole.
A part of the problem is that research into superfoods, which constitute "a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being", is still relatively new and inadequate.
"They're under-researched," says Dr Helen O'Connor senior lecturer and accredited practicing dietitian at the University of Sydney. "The studies are limited with many of these kinds of supplements and evidence in peer-reviewed literature is conflicting."
An example of this is research into antioxidants, which many studies credit with helping to ward off cancer among other things.
Yet, Copenhagen University Hospital looked at data from 67 studies on antioxidant supplements and found that people in trial groups given the antioxidants beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E "showed increased rates of mortality."
However, the authors also stated that the "trials were often small and were performed in patients with chronic diseases. The generalizability of the findings to healthy adults is uncertain."
Indeed, many health practitioners believe that superfood supplements should not be viewed, or marketed, as cure-alls, but as nutrient-rich health-boosters that support our bodies and help to prevent illness.
"The way I look at it, if you are getting a really good diet and have a healthy balance in your life then you don't need supplements," says Nutritionist Zoe Bingley-Pullin. "But, most people don't have that - they're stressed and busy and using nutrient supplements help to maintain [our body's] processes."
Leah Hechtman, president of the National Herbalists Association of Australia (NHAA) agrees. "Nutrients are essentially catalysts for biochemical reactions," she explains. "Any pathway - be it to produce a brain chemical, a hormone or to enable digestion will require these nutritional building blocks."
While superfood supplements can facilitate and support these processes, Hechtman points out that "not all superfoods are equal."
So, if you want foods with benefits in your life, it's worth knowing which ones the experts go for and what to watch out for.
"Acai berry has wonderful therapeutic properties," says Hechtman.
"They are packed with antioxidants and help kill off free-radical damage," says Bingley-Pullin. "They're not necessarily better than other berries, but they are big in antioxidants. I take acai berry powder and absolutely love it."
Bingley-Pullin uses the organic version of Amazonia (she is quick to point out that she has no affiliation with the brand) before exercise and says it aids her recovery.
Watch out for: Acai berries in chocolate or ice cream. "It doesn't make them healthy," Bingley-Pullin says.
Hechtman recommends choosing organic and sustainable farmed superfood brands. "You don't want to contribute to poverty as a price for your health and steer away from extravagant marketing claims."
Raw cacao and Maca powders
The heart foundation recommends consuming raw cacao powder. It contains high levels of polyphenols (a powerful antioxidant) which play a role in the prevention of degenerative diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases and cancers.
"Raw cacao is a wonderful source of magnesium which can assist us through times of stress and maca powder can be vey helpful to regulate hormone cascades," says Hechtman.
"It's important to note though that these are foods so the effects are therapeutic but in a gentle, supportive manner and less potent than if you took a Magnesium supplement."
Watch out for: Consuming raw cacao powder does not include drinking chocolate or milk modifiers and is not even comparable to eating milk chocolate, the Heart Foundation says.
This is because of the "processing to remove the bitter taste [means] most chocolate is a poor source of antioxidants and contains saturated and trans fats."
Different types of blue-green algae, they all have a high protein, iron, and other mineral content which is absorbed when taken orally. Researchers are also looking into their potential effects on the immune system, inflammation and viral infections.
They are high in anti-oxidants and iodine as well, says Bingley-Pullin. "They all have a chlorophyl structure - they are just different variants of the same nutrients."
Watch out for: Added sweeteners, says Bingley-Pullin. "You want it as natural as possible."
If you can't stomach it plain with water or juice she suggests opting for natural sweeteners made from stevia or dehydrated fruits or vegies.
Also, be careful to choose products that have been tested and found free of bacteria and heavy metals.
Krill oil and fish oil are excellent sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids that help lubricate joints and support the normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves.
However, research suggests that the body absorbs Krill oil better than fish oil.
Watch out for: It's important to know what you're looking for.
The fatty eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) levels vary, Bingley-Pullin says. "While a capsule might contain 1000mg you want EPA content between 400 and 600 miligrams and the DHA content between 200 and 400 miligrams."
"I actually love aloe vera. It's incredibly good for the digestive system," says Bingley-Pullin. "It's anti-inflammatory and also has a detoxifying effect on the gut."
She says that many people suffer metaflammation, which can be described as an immune inflammatory reaction and is the result of poor diet and toxification of the liver. Aloe works as a tonic for this, "putting out the fire in your belly."
Watch out for: There have been several reports of liver problems in some people who have taken an aloe leaf extract; however, this is uncommon. It is thought to only occur in people who are extra sensitive to aloe.
Other superfood with benefits rules
Supplements should not be used in place of whole foods and exercise. "People often take supplements to make up for the things they're not doing - like eating a healthy diet and being physically active," says Dr O'Connor.
She also says it's important to consult with a medical practitioner first. "Often people take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and these things can conflict with each other and can interact with medications they are prescribed.
"People's response can be different - it's not just body size - but, how they interact with something.These are the risks in terms of taking supplements and many consumers are not aware of these."
Hechtman agrees. "Each nutrient has a specific therapeutic dosage range. When taken too low it is unlikely to produce any benefit, whilst excessive doses of some nutrients can be harmful...Dosage ranges are created for safety and therapeutic ranges always require support from a health professional."
Pill, powder, liquid or injection?
Each delivery has its pros and cons, says Hechtman.
"Generally ... a liquid or powder preparation is better as the body doesn't need to process the extra ingredients sometimes found in capsules of tablets. However, some nutrients require encapsulation to delay their absorption.
"Intravenous is rapid and well tolerated for specific nutrients - not all can be delivered this way - but you can achieve higher doses for therapeutic purposes.
"For example, Liquid Iron can sometimes be a superior delivery form, whilst Vitamin C can be taken at high doses when delivered intravenously as it by-passes the digestive tract (and thus potential digestive reactions such as diarrhoea)."