November 20, 2017

Why blueberries aren't really a 'superfood'—and nothing else is, either

Daily Briefing

    By: Ashley Fuoco Antonelli, Editor

    There's no question that Thanksgiving dinner can be a gut-buster: One illustrative meal assembled by the Calorie Control Council—including cheeseballs, turkey, bread stuffing, green bean casserole, pecan pie, and more contained a whopping 3,150 calories." With all those calories floating around, you're probably looking for ways to optimize your nutritional intake, perhaps turning your fork toward nutrient-rich foods, like grandma's blueberry pie. After all, blueberries are a "superfood," so you're making a healthy choice, right?

    Not really. While there is a large swath of evidence showing blueberries have extensive health benefits, The Atlantic's James Hamblin explains that the blueberry's "superfood" moniker began its life as a marketing tactic, similar to the way dark chocolate erroneously became known as a health food. (And needless to say, the sugar and fat in a blueberry pie likely offsets any nutritional benefit anyway.)

    Let's take a closer look.

    Research, marketing, or the perfect mix of both?

    Numerous studies tout blueberries' health benefits. Perhaps the most commonly repeated benefit is that blueberries are high in antioxidants, which help to curb oxidative stress on the body. Other research has associated blueberries with improved cognitive function, mobility, blood pressure, cholesterol, and more.

    But Hamblin details how the extensive research backing blueberries' health benefits originated in a PR push to position blueberries as a so-called "superfood."

    According to Hamblin, a marketing executive named John Sauve, who was the executive director of the Wild-Blueberry Association of North America from 1993 to 2004, heard about a 1996 study that found dark-colored fruits were high in antioxidants, and that of those fruits, blueberries contained the highest levels. Suave told Hamblin though he didn't have a deep understanding of the findings, he "understood that [researchers] had found that blueberries produce the highest numbers [of antioxidants] on the chart. As a marketer, if your product happens to come out first in something, you might want to look into it."

    From there, Suave and others in the blueberry industry began funding research into the fruit's health effects. Suave told Hamblin, "We took a shot and we invested in it and ended up creating a story with the positioning of blueberries and antioxidants." He continued, "We hit this story right. We built it right, we communicated it right, and we got remarkable PR coverage out of it."

    As a result of the industry-funded research and marketing push, consumers started eating more blueberries. According to Hamblin," The North American blueberry supply has increased from 300 million pounds annually to around 1.5 billion."

    Researchers say there's no such thing as a 'superfood'

    But while studies do show that blueberries are high in antioxidants, experts say there is not any scientific evidence that supports calling blueberries—or any other fruit or vegetable, for that matter—a "superfood." According to experts, research shows eating a wide variety of different colored, whole foods is most beneficial. To that end, implying one food is more "super" than the others, and in turn leading people to consume those superfoods at a higher rate than other whole foods, actually could be detrimental to one's health.

    For instance, Hamblin writes that Diane McKay, a scientist in the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University's USDA Human-Nutrition Research Center on Aging, during a 2015 presentation said, "The term 'superfruit' means different things to different people," but "in scientific research, the term is virtually meaningless." She added that the food industry should be cautious when calling something a "superfruit," because it could "send the wrong message to consumers, implying they should eat less of all other fruits."

    So should you stop eating blueberries?

    All of this isn't to say that blueberries aren't a nutritious choice or that they don't have health benefits. But what experts are saying is you shouldn't ignore other whole, healthy foods this Thanksgiving in favor of one marketed as a "superfood."

    Plenty of highly nutritious fruits and vegetables could make an appearance in your Thanksgiving dinner lineup including apples, beans, beets, broccoli, kale, and pumpkin. So when you're weighing your options, remember that eating an array of colorful fruits and vegetables is the way to boost your overall health, and feel free to pick the apple or pumpkin pie over the blueberry.

    Understand the wellness spectrum—and promote healthy habits at work

    understanding the employee wellness spectrum

    Programs aimed at promoting healthy habits among employees are likely to lead to improved employee engagement and productivity—but they're unlikely to reduce the total cost of care. To do that, you'll need to take a population health approach.

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