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Superfoods: How to tell if claims are real

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Last week Swedish fruit, the lingonberry hit the headlines as the next big nutritional powerhouse. But should we believe the hype? We ask nutritionist Lovisa Nilsson

Avocados, berries, salmon, chia seeds, flax seeds, pomegranates and brazil nuts are all touted as super foods – but there’s a mew berry in town.

Last week, the Swedish lingonberry was the latest to join the line-up. Although superfoods are a real thing, the term has grown into a marketing buzzword, making it difficult for people to decide what to believe.

Do your own research

Nutritionist Lovisa Nilsson is skeptical about super foods and encourages people to research every food to see if it will actually benefit his or her health.

Lingonberries, which originate from my native country, Sweden, have been labelled the new ‘superfood,’.

A  recent study by university of Helsinki found that long term consumption of lingonberry juice lowered blood pressure and improved the function of blood vessels.

Anne Kivimäki, (MSc Food Science) studied the cardiovascular effects of cold-pressed lingonberry juice, cranberry juice and blackcurrant juice as drinking fluid for eight to ten weeks on genetically hypertensive rats.

Her results showed that cold-pressed lingonberry juice significantly lowered high blood pressure while juice that contained more polyphenols improved impaired blood vessel function to the level of healthy vessels.

Plus, another study by Sweden’s Lund University found that lingonberries prevented weight gain in mice fed a high fat diet.

So do your own research. Rather than trusting an advert or news story, try to find a legitimate study by an academic or medical institution that proves the health benefits of the food in question.

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Lingonberries, which originate from my native country, Sweden, have been labelled the new ‘superfood’

Get nerdy about food

One of the best places to find these online is pubmed.gov. This is the website for the US National Library of Medicine which archives virtually every peer-reviewed medical paper ever published in its raw form.

It will give you access to the paper itself or what is called in science an ‘abstract’ which is a short summary of the study, its purpose, method, results, conclusions and authors plus where the study was carried out.

The  findings about lingonberries indeed came from animal-based evidence which is not considered the highest grade of proof when applied to human circumstances.

Nevertheless, the benefits of lingonberries, including their richness in a notable range of essential vitamins such as vitamins A, B and C and minerals such as magnesium and calcium, have been proven in human tests as well. As such, if you are confused, it is best to seek advice from a doctor or nutritionist.

Remember, you will not notice significant results unless you eat your chosen superfood as part of a balanced, healthy diet. I think one of the reasons the idea of the superfood is so appealing to consumers is that people naturally seek a quick-fix solution to their health troubles  and the idea of a ‘miraculous food’ is attractive, albeit unrealistic.

Indeed there are clear health benefits but one should not assume that by eating a few lingonberries a day, alongside junk food, they will suddenly shed unwanted pounds. The consumption of superfoods should complement the weight-loss process rather than justify a high-fat diet.

Superfood. Before you believe the hype, do some research to find the medical papers that prove benefits
Superfood. Before you believe the hype, do some research to find the medical papers that prove benefits

It is important to take the calorie content and serving sizes of superfoods into account. An avocado, for example, is packed with essential nutrients but one avocado can contain as many as 400 calories, whilst a Mars bar has 230 calories. Obviously an avocado has far more health benefits than a Mars bar but if you are on a calorie controlled diet be sure to eat certain superfoods in moderation. This also applies to dried fruits, which are high in calories.

In the same way, be wary of meals or drinks that include superfoods.  Juices or smoothies are often referred to as ‘super juices’ when they include highly nutritious berries like blueberries or cranberries but their sugar content is generally high.

In the same vein, food companies often brand salads, sandwiches and ready-meals as healthy simply because they include one well-known superfood, when, in reality, the meal might be high in salt or include a high-calorie dressing.

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Skeptical about super foods. Nutritionist Lovisa Nilsson.

Overall, superfoods are not only a marketing term; they can have proven health benefits. Just do your research and don’t get carried away by the hype that surrounds them.

Lovisa Nilsson is a nutritionist and assistant product manager at Scandinavian health and fitness app Lifesum.

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