The problem with superfoods.

Incomplete knowledge, or lack of understanding can be a very dangerous thing.

I was reading a newspaper article with a list of “superfoods” supposedly good for health. The feature listed fruit jam, bacon, cheddar cheese, ice cream, potatoes, coffee, chocolate, and red wine as being beneficial to health based on certain inherent properties. On the other hand, the feature mentioned that some other food products such as orange juice, apples, yogurt, and bean-curd had an adverse impact on health based on completely different properties.

While not technically wrong, the feature provides a classic example of selective sorting. Orange juice, apples, and yogurt were targeted as detrimental because the high sugar content in these products causes tooth decay, but fruit jam, ice cream, and chocolate were not listed for the same reasons. Orange juice is an excellent source of Vitamin C, but it is also high in sugar, which can be detrimental to those prone to tooth decay or diabetes. Using the same sort of selective thinking in the article one could also just as easily argue that cigarette smoke is one kind of “superfood” with therapeutic benefits because it has been shown to relieve stress. My point is that instead of listing a couple of positive aspects of certain foods and calling them “superfoods”, wouldn’t it have shown more journalistic prudence to note the pros and cons of consumption of each product?

As it is, there is a lot of advice floating around on what we should and should not eat and drink. We are told alternatively that red meat is bad, but meat protein is good for us; that milk is a perfect food, but that it contains milk fat that can lead to heart disease; and that carbohydrates provide energy, but can also cause a spike in blood sugar. At this level of discourse, the discussion of quantity is often lacking. In other words, any one of the items listed as good or bad in the news-article such as fruit jam, potatoes, orange juice, and apples could be beneficial or detrimental to health depending on the amount eaten and over what time-period. Clean drinking-water, something that few of us consider harmful, can cause death if ingested rapidly and in considerably large amounts, and there are well documented cases of water intoxication. Conversely many poisonous compounds do little harm if small amounts are ingested over a long period of time. A little known fact is that snake venom is not generally considered a poison if it is swallowed, because it is broken down by the digestive system. Toxicologists, scientists who study the harmful effects of chemicals, have studied these properties of substances for a long time. To properly define amount associated with toxicity, they use a term called the median lethal dose which points out just how much of something is required to kill half of an experimental population (of usually lab rats or mice).

Knowing just how much ice cream or red wine needs to be ingested in a short time to cause death in half of a group of mice may not be the stuff of newspaper headlines. But the point is a cause for further introspection because it is important to know the properties of the foods we eat at the amounts we eat them, and also at what key threshold quantities they become detrimental to us.


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