Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Coconut Oil: Miracle Food or Marketing Magic

Superfood is a term that I hear tossed around a lot these days.  Wander anywhere near the snack or supplement aisle of your local heath food store and you're guaranteed to see this word plastered all over the place. But what exactly is a superfood?
The word "superfood" dates all the way back to 1915 when it first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary defined as "a food considered to be especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being."  The meaning hasn't changed much since then, although I've seen superfood used to describe any nutrient-rich food that promotes health and wellbeing.  I tend to think of superfoods as rare or more unusual whole-foods like acai, maca and mulberries or even chia and quinoa which have become more common (but only recently).  I would argue that foods don't need to be exotic to match the definition of superfood.  There are plenty of everyday superfoods like kale, beets, hemp, garlic, broccoli and just about every kind of berry. Generally, however, the term superfood conveys more than just nutrient-rich foods, especially when it's used in food marketing.
Julie Morris, author of Superfood Kitchen, writes about the problematic use of superfoods:
With such a catchy name--super (yay!) plus food (yum!)-- and currently no official boundaries on verbiage claims, it's easy to see how such a term would become exploited as a flashy selling point, with food companies and marketing professionals attempting to make their products seem more beneficial (i.e. sugary cereal...now with superfoods!). In Europe, the problem of this misleading hype became so prevalent, the European Union banned using the term "superfood" on products that do not clearly provide some kind of credible scientific documentation to back up the claim.
Unfortunately in America, there are no restrictions on using the word superfood, and its original meaning has been hijacked.  If you look at the vast majority of packaged and heavily marketed superfoods, you could easily replace the word "superfood" with "miracle food" to match the hyperbole of the claims listed on the labels.  There are exceptions of course, as in many of the nutrient rich whole plant foods with only one ingredient listed on the label.  I have no issue with companies selling us whole or minimally processed superfoods which actually stick to the original definition.  I do, however, have a beef with processed (not whole) foods that put a stake in the ground of the superfood isle.
One of the greatest misappropriations of the word superfood I've seen is when it's applied to oil.  In the case of olive oil, usually the term people see is "heart-healthy," which is really a stretch (I'll get into that in another post). To put it simply, olive oil is one of the most heavily processed or extracted foods. It doesn't matter if it's extra-virgin, cold-pressed, organic or whatnot...it still takes almost 400 olives to make a single gallon if olive oil. The whole food is stripped away, and you're left with the pure extracted oil, or fat. How on earth could that be considered a healthy whole food?
The other culprit that has miraculously perpetuated nutrition myths is coconut oil.  It was only around 2004 that coconut oil suddenly became all the rage.  Coconut oil is now thought of a "superfood" among many foodies and health aficionados, but not among plant-based nutritionists.  The science simply does not support the claims made by the coconut oil industry.  If you're skeptical because you've heard some of the marketing claims, I urge you to read Jeff Novick's article summarizing the science vs. the claims made by the industry: The Real Coconut Oil Miracle. We should always be skeptical of any food that has to market its supposed health benefits.  Note that coconuts, nor olives themselves have any claims on their packaging.  Once you introduce a process that extracts a whole food into a processed packaged food, you've stripped away the healthy context. The real miracle about nutrition that scientists are beginning to understand is that whole foods work like a symphony. If we try to extract what we thought was beneficial from a whole food, we're left with an unnatural abstraction that the body does not know how to deal with.
Dr. Gregor also has a few videos looking that the best science available on coconut oil.
So if you're shopping for superfoods, remember that the biggest superfood section of your grocery store is the isle that has fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole nutrient rich nuts and grains, seeds and legumes.

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