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Superfoods that aren’t really ‘super’ after all

Blog post | 21 Mar 2018

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to nourish your body with nutritious foods. But many of the so-called ‘superfoods’ touted in the news, on social media or even in your workplace tea room aren’t as beneficial or as healthy as you might think – and they’re often expensive. Here are the facts (and fiction) behind three of the more popular foodie fads. 

Pink Himalayan rock salt 

It costs up to 30 times more than regular table salt and is alleged to be healthier, but is Himalayan rock salt worth it? Probably not. 

Purveyors of the gourmet salt, mined from areas close to the Himalayas, in Pakistan for example, reckon it contains more minerals than table salt and can ‘balance the body’s pH levels’, ‘improve sleep’ and ‘regulate blood sugar’. There is no credible evidence to support these claims, and the extra minerals that simply give Himalayan rock salt its pink hue are so negligible they’re unlikely to offer any benefits. 

“There are no additional benefits to eating these ‘posh’ salts, as they are as detrimental to health as regular salt because of the sodium present,” says Clare Farrand, a public health nutritionist at The George Institute for Global Health who works with the World Health Organization (WHO) to reduce salt intake globally. 

Any salt, regardless of where it comes from, is roughly 98 per cent sodium chloride. It’s the sodium that can cause high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke, heart attack and kidney disease – and we are consuming too much of it. 

According to research reported in the Medical Journal of Australia, Australian adults consume, on average, 3,840mg of sodium per day – well over the 2,000mg daily maximum recommended by the WHO.

“We need to reduce the amount of salt in our diets,” urges Ms Farrand. “Salt of any kind is not a good source of essential minerals – fresh fruits and vegetables are a good source of vitamins and minerals.” 

How much money you spend on salt is your choice and our bodies do need salt – but limit your intake. Adults should aim for a maximum of 5g per day (equivalent of 2,000mg of sodium, or less than a teaspoon of salt), Ms Farrand advises. This includes salt in packaged or takeaway foods. You can read more about the recommended daily intakes of salt for children of different ages here.  

Opt for salt that’s ‘iodised’, too, which means it’s had iodine added to it. (Iodine is essential to healthy thyroid function.) Although it may naturally contain some iodine, Himalayan rock salt is likely to offer less iodine than iodised table salt.

Dark chocolate 

Some research has shown that cocoa, an ingredient in chocolate, is a rich source of flavonoids, a type of antioxidant that may benefit blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease

But significant amounts of flavonoids are often removed during the manufacturing process in order to get rid of the bitterness in pure cocoa. Then, to make chocolate, cocoa powder is typically mixed with cocoa solids, cocoa butter, vegetable oils, refined sugar and milk powder. 

It might be OK to scoff chocolate for breakfast on Easter Sunday, but dark chocolate is not quite healthy enough to eat with abandon on the other 364 days of the year. Even dark choc containing ‘85% cocoa’ (which consumers often believe is healthier) is made up of 46% fat (9.2g fat per small 20g serve). In other words, nearly half of this seemingly healthy alternative is, well, fat.   

So, unless you consume unprocessed, natural cocoa, you’re unlikely to get any significant benefits from chocolate. The easiest way to get antioxidants in your diet, according to the Heart Foundation, is to eat a variety of plant-based foods such as vegies, fruit and legumes, plus wholegrain breads, nuts and seeds. 

Outside of Easter, try to limit your chocolate consumption to four squares, or one row of a block, advises dietitian Catherine Saxelby.

Coconut oil 

Sales of coconut oil have risen and fallen sharply in the US, as consumers are realising this ‘superfood’ isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Extracted from the flesh of coconuts, coconut oil has a high smoking point (which means it will withstand high heat before it starts to smoke and lose nutritional quality). It’s a versatile alternative to traditional cooking oils and dairy products in baking. It’s also popular among vegans and followers of the ‘Paleo’ diet

While coconut oil does contain some antioxidants, which is good, it's made up of 92% saturated fat (more than butter or lard), which is bad. It also raises levels of total cholesterol, including LDL (the bad kind). LDL contributes to the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries. 

Nevertheless, one of the claims made about coconut oil, loosely based on old research by Columbia University, is that it helps boost weight loss. Back in 2003, two study papers found that consuming medium-chain fatty acids – a type of molecule found in coconut oil – can help people lose weight. But coconut oil contains only 14% medium-chain fatty acids, and the participants in that study received 100% medium-chain fatty acids, a special concoction made just for them. There is no credible evidence that coconut oil alone contributes to weight loss. 

If you love coconut oil, use it only occasionally and in small amounts, advises the Heart Foundation. It’s better to use healthier oils such as olive and canola in your cooking.

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