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Chia Seeds, Goji Berries, Quinoa and Their Ilk for Weight Loss Might Not Be The Superfoods You Think They Are

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Not all superfoods are safe.

Do you look for superfoods to help with weight loss as part of a healthy diet? A new study warns that superfoods like chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa and their ilk might not be the superfoods the food industry would have you believe.

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Superfoods on TV and in Your Supermarket

A recent communications report from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), warns consumers that the term “Superfood” is not legally regulated and could be misleading many dieters and health food consumers into buying more hype than actual nutrition from their food purchases.

“Superfood” is a term commonly used by the media as a hot button for catching the attention of consumers when a new food item—or supplement containing an extract of a food item—is touted to work miracles toward losing weight and adopting a healthy lifestyle.

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Examples of this include numerous episodes of The Dr. Oz Show where the word “superfood” is used to categorize specific food items that are associated with a health benefit. While some are questionably “super” such as Dr. Oz’s Top 3 Superfoods to Blast Belly Fat; others are grounded in sensible nutrition science such as those he promotes for solving digestive problems and aiding weight loss that come from eating fermented foods and healthy yogurt choices.

This is not to say that superfoods do not exist; but rather, that not all food products labeled as a superfood are backed by science or governmental protections.

Superfood Public Perception

According to the recent German BfR report, a new survey reveals that:

• Forty-eight percent of the population view so-called "superfoods" as part of a health-conscious diet.

• Superfoods are perceived largely by the public as foods with a high content of vitamins or minerals and fiber.

• The main benefits cited are the content of vitamins, a generally positive effect on the body, and a strengthening of the immune system.

• Approximately two out of five respondents consider the health benefits of superfoods to be scientifically proven.

• Many assume that superfood products are tested for health safety before they are available.

• Only 8 percent of respondents associate health risks with the consumption of superfoods.

"Superfood products are often not sufficiently investigated to be able to evaluate them from a health perspective," says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "A balanced and varied diet remains the best basis for staying healthy. This can be supported by the consumption of imported superfoods just as by the consumption of local fruits and vegetables."

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As an example, the report refers to three common foods often categorized as superfoods that includes chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa, which are largely imported; while in fact, local alternatives are just as “super” in their nutritional content. The report states:

“Compared to local foods, the majority tend to label imported foods, such as chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa, as superfoods. Yet, local foods often provide comparable health benefits. For example, blackcurrants present an alternative to goji berries due to their high content of vitamin C just as linseed, with its high content of proteins and omega-3 fatty acids, shares similarities with the nutritional profile of chia seeds.”

Are Chia Seeds, Goji Berries and Quinoa Safe?

Due to their popularity, chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa have been assessed for their level of food safety. Health concerns toward each of the three included:

• Chia seeds potentially releasing harmful concentrations of some chemicals such as acrylamide under high-heat processing treatment.

• Goji berries may have ingredients that can adversely affect patients on some medications such as a vitamin K antagonist like warfarin— an anticoagulant drug.

• Quinoa seed coats contain saponins, which can damage the intestinal mucosa. Washing during processing as well as peeling the seeds dilutes the saponin content to safe levels.

In spite of the aforementioned concerns, the safety of these “superfoods” referenced from the report, has the consensus that all three appear to pose no health risk and therefore are safe to consume.

However, the point being made is that unlike chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa, many advertised superfoods have not gone under the same level of scrutiny and therefore have the potential of being unsafe in spite of its namesake.

The report warns that, “…some superfood products, such as certain food supplements, consist of extracts or preparations of plant-based superfoods, which may contain potentially harmful substances in concentrated form. The lack of standards in extraction procedures or partly insufficient data from studies can make the health risk assessment of these products difficult. For this reason, they cannot be compared to the plant-based superfoods from which they are derived.”

The take-home message then is that consumers should be careful when deciding on any product labeled or promoted as a “superfood” due to that like many supplements, there is little to no government safety intervention…until a problem arises.

For more about food for weight loss and good health, here is a recent article about a Consumer Dieting Hack When Food Shopping For Healthier Choices.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Skica911 from Pixabay

References:

Chia, goji & co.—Superfoods are part of a healthy diet for approximately half of the population” BfR Consumer Monitor news release 18 Nov. 2020

Superfoods—super good?” Communication No 052/2020 from the BfR of 18 November 2020.

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