Did you know that many so-called ‘superfoods’ carry a heavy environmental and social footprint?
Any die hard yogi, health coach, budding nutritionist, or health-conscious supermodel will tell you that your morning smoothie isn’t complete without acai berries, maca powder, spirulina, or chia seeds. But did you know that many far-flung ‘superfoods’ carry a heavy environmental and social footprint?
What are superfoods?
Superfoods are simply foods that have a higher than average nutrient density. This leaves a wide scope for many different foods. Nowadays the word ‘superfood’ brings to mind some relatively expensive powders, capsules, purees, and juice concentrates.
Sedate brown-green powders and lifeless capsules wouldn’t be very sexy as stand alone items. So these products are cleverly marketed with the usual lethal gamut of ‘cutting edge’ research, images of women in bikinis who are conventionally attractive with just the right amount of exotic ethnicity, and those words that appeal to the health nut in all of us: organic, pure, clean, paleo, concentrated, anti-ageing, antioxidant, and of course free of gluten, sugar, dairy, and all the rest of it.
More nutrient-dense than a speeding bullet blender
What makes these superfoods even more irresistible is the inviting concept of a jam-packed form of nutrition in a minute amount of food, conveniently packaged in some highly concentrated form. Get 300% of your RDI of vitamin E or quercitin in just one teaspoon of this stuff! What time-poor wellness seeker could resist?
The escalating demand for such foods by health-conscious consumers has let loose the tsunami of superfood marketing and health food store bombardment we’ve seen over the last decade.
Rarity breeds desire
As humans we tend to thirst for the most exotic, the most expensive, the most foreign version of many things, and this is strikingly clear when it comes to some of the more popular superfoods.
Think goji berries from the Tibetan Himalayas, acai sourced from the depths of pristine Amazonian rainforests, chia harvested in South American coastal deserts, maca and quinoa from the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia, coconuts and durian from steamy Southeast Asia, noni fruit from Tahiti, and mesquite from Mexico. That means there’s a lot of work and resources involved in getting those superfoods from those Andean mountaintops and high Tibetan plateaux and into your blender.
Transportation of food contributes a significant percentage of all carbon emissions produced on our planet. It has impacts as far ranging as the destruction of foreign ecosystems and traditional cultures.
I’ve found the highest concentration of superfood lovers to be within my own circles of yoga practitioners, clients, and friends, who are as environmentally conscious as they are health conscious. So why do many of us continue to buy foods that carry such a huge environmental and social impact?
The less-than-super truth
Superfoods aren’t always sustainably harvested. Take quinoa, once a Bolivian farmer’s food, now in the pantry of every upper middle class, health conscious Westerner. And at a high price, too. Due to Western demand tripling prices of quinoa on the global market since 2006, poorer Bolivians can no longer afford their staple grain. To add insult to injury, the quinoa-growing region of Bolivia is now suffering from health issues such as malnutrition, partly because quinoa growers who export their crop now purchase cheaper, refined grains to eat from the store.
Well-intentioned health and ethics led consumers are unwittingly driving poverty in Bolivia. If you buy quinoa sourced from South America instead of Australia, you are one of these consumers. So please check the packets before you buy! Similarly, wildcrafted superfoods such as maca can be damaging to local populations despite the relatively high prices paid to locals for foraging rights. In the same way, our desire for chocolate, bananas, coffee, and sugar has decimated local cultures and ecosystems in previous centuries. Ignoring the sentiment that buying a raw superfood smoothie bowl with an $18 price tag smacks of privilege, do we really need these products in our smoothies and diets, despite the fact that in many cases we are hurting other humans and impinging upon their basic human rights?
Food and karma
The way foods (including ‘superfoods’) are grown or raised, processed, transported, traded and prepared has powerful effects on soil, plants, animals, ecosystems and the health of the planet. And on farmers, consumers, economies, and society as a whole. You may be familiar with the term karma. The theory of karma is one of cause and effect. However, causes do not simply lead to a predictable set of knock-on effects. Karma works in subtle ways, with causes combining in multitudinous complexities to create experience.
When you eat something, you eat everything that happened to make that food come into existence. You say yes to the hands and systems that allowed that food to come to you. You affirm a certain version of the world. If you choose bananas from a South American plantation located on destroyed rainforest land, employing impoverished workers at a fraction of the wage they should be receiving, using pesticides and shipped long distances using oil-fuelled ships, you ever so slightly reinforce this state of affairs. You make it part of your reality and experience.
You say yes to that world
If you instead purchase bananas from a local organic farm, you say yes to a different set of conditions. You strengthen community ties, and in a miniscule way weaken the hold of impersonal food corporations. You say yes to a world that treats soil, air, water and people with respect.
Do you rely on a food production system that restores nature and cultivates human consciousness? Or one that throws nature out of balance, is grown and processed by strangers, and employs monoculture and genetic modification? And since we’re talking about superfoods, one that perhaps reinforces a lifestyle that prioritises health and fitness over everything else? (A phenomenon known as ‘healthism’.) One that leverages privilege and social status to create the illusion of ultimate health by placing a higher price on the most exotic, the most antioxidant-dense, and the most sexy-sounding and marketable, despite the costs?
Still feel like you need your superfood smoothies?
There’s nothing wrong with having some superfoods in your diet if you truly enjoy them and can afford them. But if it’s purely the health benefits you’re going for, you need not pay five times the price! Especially for what offers possibly a fraction of the antioxidants. Given that the more exotic superfoods are shipped from so far away and stored for months in some cases, many of these foods are no longer fresh and therefore may have experienced loss of antioxidant activity and superfood-ism anyway!
There are many locally grown, comparatively cheaper superfoods with an unusually high nutrient density. You could pop these into your morning smoothie instead, to give you a bounce and a clear conscience. Kale, parsley, turmeric, ginger, and dandelion greens can all be grown in your own backyard easily. And in the case of dandelion, can be found as weeds growing freely along your fence line!
If you still wish to gain the health benefits of specific superfoods without remortgaging your house, try:
- Spinach over spirulina (both high in antioxidants and iron).
- Eggs over chia seeds (for an Omega-3 hit).
- Seasonal berries over acai (antioxidant central).
- And pumpkin seeds over maca (both promote reproductive health).
Grounded spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric and mustard contain the highest ORAC count (a measure of total antioxidant capacity) of any foodstuff you can get. They far exceed noni juice or acai berries.
Other superfoods that I’m lucky to have access to here in Southeast Queensland are locally grown avocados, purslane (Portulaca oleracea, an edible weed exceptionally high in ALA Omega-3, vitamins and minerals), and locally caught fish. If you must have quinoa, acai or maca, and you’re concerned about sustainability and social justice, do your research. And vote with your dollar. If you’re buying organic chocolate, make sure it’s at least ‘fair trade’. Check where it is grown and how it is harvested. We eat the energy we want to become, so choose wisely.
Does the food you eat resonate with who you are, and who you wish to be?
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