Don’t Be Fooled by These 5 Miracle Elixirs…Ahem, Superfoods

Thursday Apr 23 | BY |
| Comments (6)

Cartoon Sale man selling his wares outside his car

Which superfoods are mostly super-hype?
I just finished performing in a production of “Sweeney Todd.” (I played the French horn in the pit orchestra.)

If you’re familiar with the musical, you may remember the number “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.” (If not, you can check it out here.)

In it, young waif Toby Ragg, who is the unfortunate apprentice of the self-absorbed and cruel Signor Adolfo Pirelli, advertises his master’s “miracle elixir” as the amazing cure for baldness.

How about a bottle, mister?
Only costs a penny, guaranteed

Does Pirelli’s
Stimulate the growth, sir?
You can have my oath, sir
’Tis unique

Rub a minute–
Stimulatin’ i’n’ it?
Soon you’ll have to thin it
Once a week!

Toby and his illustrious master are soon called out by Sweeney Todd, who claims the awful smelling stuff is nothing more than urine mixed with ink.

“Ladies seem to love it!” Toby shouts.

“Flies do, too,” says Sweeney Todd’s partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett.

It’s no surprise that we find charlatans peddling miracle cures in 19th century England, where Sweeney Todd is set. “Snake oil” they called it in the Americas, since one of the earliest forms of the infamous cure-all was viper oil.

In today’s world of scientific research and laboratory testing, we imagine we’ve moved beyond ever being fooled by charlatans. Surely when we buy something we know what it’s doing for our health, right?

Well, not always. Turns out we can still fall for Toby’s charms on occasion. (Just check out our previous post on “Fake Supplements.”)

One of the ways we frequently come across the snake oil salesmen these days is in the realm of “superfoods.” Seems just about every month there’s a new one advertised as being the amazing cure-all for everything from headaches and weight gain to diabetes and cancer.

Usually these foods are good for us, but does that mean we should spend a lot of money on them and go out of our way to incorporate them into our daily diets?

That’s the question, and one we set out to find the answer to—at least where some alleged superfoods are concerned.

5 Superfoods You Can Skip

We’re flooded with information about food these days. It can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, especially because most food, in its natural form, is good for us. Still, we can only consume so much per day, so we have to make choices.

Of course, we want to choose those foods that will give us the biggest bang for our buck, in terms of wellness. That means we’ve got to leave some out. But which ones?

We found five foods that were touted as superfoods over the last decade or so, but that we may be making the following mistakes with:

  1. Eating too much of it
  2. Spending too much money on it
  3. Thinking it does more for our health than it really does

Look over our list and let us know what you think. We may add to it at a later date!

1. Goji Berries

Oprah and Madonna endorsed them. They reduce signs of aging, prevent cancer, and even increase libido, according to claims.

Claims that the FDA reprimanded the manufacturers for in 2006.

Grown in temperate and subtropic regions of China, Mongolia, and the Tibetan Himalayas, the goji berry was traditionally used for treating skin rashes, eye problems, allergies, and other ailments. Modern marketers touted the berry as the key to longevity, as well as the superfood that would improve brain health, digestion, cardiovascular health, immunity, and even help shrink cancerous tumors.

All for about $17 a pound.

So far, however, we’re lacking any credible scientific support for these claims. Goji berries, like all berries, are a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but eating a handful of the berries or even a glassful of juice won’t get you near the concentration used in the few studies that did get published—and even these were weak.

In 1994, for instance, Chinese researchers treated a small sampling of cancer patients with immunotherapy and a concentrated solution of gogi berry polysaccharides, while others were treated only with immunotherapy. Those who received the goji berry compounds seemed to have a better response to treatment (with the cancer regressing), but the study design and the goji berry compounds used were called into question, as specific information was lacking.

Another 2008 study of only 34 people attempted to show how goji berry juice affected brain activity, digestion, and overall wellbeing. Though participants reported some improvements in energy level and feelings of well being, real data on physical measurements such as visual acuity and blood pressure during the study showed no significant changes.

Instead:
Forget the expensive goji berries, unless you just enjoy them and want to splurge. (Remember that dried berries have a high amount of sugar.) Other more economical berries—like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries—work just as well if not better at providing antioxidant protection. Spinach will also give you similar health benefits at a cheaper price.

2. Noni Juice

It comes from the fruit of the Morinda citrifolia tree, which grows in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. It came to the North American market in the 1990s and early 2000s. Sold in supplement and then juice form, it was touted as perfect for treating cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV, allergies, arthritis, and more.

(This will do the trick, sir!)

In 2004, the FDA issued a warning letter to one of the manufacturers for making unfounded health claims about their noni juice, and marketing it as a medical product without the necessary clinical evidence.

The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center lists some preliminary evidence that noni plant extracts (not the juice) may have antitumor properties. So far, these are all laboratory and animal studies. One laboratory study also suggested the fruit extract may inhibit the oxidation of LDL “bad” cholesterol.

Human studies are limited, but do include one that showed the extract (again, not the juice) was effective at reducing postoperative nausea. As with goji berries, however, we have little solid, human evidence that noni has any of the health benefits marketers advertise.

The problem here is that people are consuming large amounts of noni juice expecting miracles. As fruit juices are often high in sugar, consuming large amounts can be dangerous for diabetics, and likely to add pounds and spike blood sugar in the rest of us.

Noni is also rich in potassium, which can be dangerous if you’re taking high blood pressure medications that increase potassium, or if you have kidney problems.

Instead:
Enjoy a bit of noni juice now and then if you like the taste. You’ll enjoy its vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and potential health benefits, but watch out that you don’t consume too much sugar at the same time. Remember, too, that most studies so far showing benefits are on the fruit extract, not the juice.

3. Wheatgrass

A type of grass in the wheat family, wheatgrass is sold as a dietary supplement and in liquid form, to be taken as a vitamin or added to smoothies and tea. Fans say a one-ounce shot gives you as many nutrients as over two pounds of your finest veggies, but scientific analysis says that pound for pound, you’ll get about the same nutrients from broccoli, spinach, and other similar healthy vegetables.

This one’s claim to fame is that it builds red blood cells, tames inflammation, and yes—shrinks tumors and extends the lives of people living with cancer. It’s also supposed to rid the body of waste, cleanse the liver, and help people with colitis. Celebrities love it because of its purported ability to freshen breath, postpone gray hair, and brighten skin.

Like most leafy green vegetables, wheatgrass is a good source of vitamin C, amino acids, iron, and antioxidants, and is a good addition to a healthy diet. There’s little evidence to support that it can cure or prevent disease, however.

There was one small study where patients with ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease) were given 100 ml of wheatgrass juice daily for a month. The participants reported some symptom improvement, including reduced severity of rectal bleeding, but as there were only 21 of them, the results are only suggestive.

Another small study—so small it was classified as a “pilot” study—found that patients with a blood disorder called “thalassaemia” required fewer blood transfusions when they consumed 100 ml of wheatgrass juice a day for three years. The study was identified as having several weaknesses, however, and there have been no additional studies to confirm the benefit.

Other studies showing the potential of wheatgrass to offset chemotherapy side effects, prevent cancer, or detox the system were equally small (usually with 20 or fewer participants) or conducted in the lab—not in real people.

Meanwhile, most wheatgrass products are on the expensive side, with juices between $1.50 and $3.00 per ounce, and freeze dried wheatgrass costing about $1 per gram. You may find some powdered supplements for less, but then you have to consider the quality—are you still getting the real stuff?

Instead:
Save your money and go for broccoli, which is cheaper, easier to find, and also contains key vitamins and minerals, as well as chlorophyll.

4. Coconut Oil

There’s no question this is a healthy food—the problem is, we’re consuming too much of it, and thinking it’s going to do more for us than it will.

Coconut is the latest fad. Fans say it’s good for just about everything that ails you. Use coconut oil more often in your cooking and throughout your day and you’ll lose body fat, boost brain function, stimulate thyroid function, and even fight off yeast infections. Of course, it will also treat cancer (is there any superfood that doesn’t treat cancer?), as well as HIV and diabetes.

Research tells a little different story. As with wheatgrass, the studies we do have are small animal studies, and even these are limited. Concerning heart disease, for example, we have some animal and small human studies that suggest coconut oil may improve cholesterol levels, but other studies find no association between the oil and a reduction in heart disease. In 2004, for example, researchers looked at coconut-consuming native populations in Indonesia, and found no correlation with cardiovascular disease.

Coconut oil has shown in several studies to raise both total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol compared to beef and palm oil. HDL cholesterol is protective, but what are the results of a higher total cholesterol level? Is it truly beneficial to raise both levels of cholesterol in the body? We don’t know.

Some studies have found that higher HDL didn’t reduce heart disease risk, and one study from Australia even found that the “quality” of HDL could be changed by the foods we eat, and that saturated fat could actually impair the anti-inflammatory benefits of HDL.

The main concern with coconut oil is the high level of saturated fat. Though recent studies have suggested that fats aren’t as bad for us as we used to believe (see our article on that here), we should be careful not to swing to the other extreme and consume too many. Some studies have suggested the fats in coconut oil may be metabolized differently, leading to less fat production in the human body, but these are preliminary studies, and many lacked control groups or were poorly designed.

In addition, we still have studies showing that longer-chain saturated fatty acids, like those in coconut oil, are associated with increased risk of heart disease. In 1999, for example, one study looked at over 80,000 women from the Nurses’ Health Study without heart disease. During a 14-year follow up, it was determined that intakes of longer-chain fatty acids were associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

A more recent 2003 study also found that increased consumption of saturated fatty acids (including lauric acid, the most plentiful in coconut oil) was associated with an increased risk of heart attack, with lauric, myristic and stearic acids more potent than palmitic acid.

The results on inflammation are equally mixed. Some studies show that coconut oil can tame inflammation, particularly inflammatory bowel diseases, but others show no significant effect on inflammation in humans. Cancer studies are also inconclusive. Animal research so far shows conflicting results on the effect of the fats in coconut oil on cancerous tumors.

Meanwhile, we have no credible research at all on the effects of coconut oil on Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, thyroid function, or HIV/AIDS.

Instead:
Coconut oil is definitely not as bad as people once believed, and may have some significant health benefits. It’s no miracle cure, however, and we are still unsure of its affects on heart health (positive or negative). Cooking with it sounds like a good idea. Consuming too much of it, however, is unlikely to create any real health benefits.

5. Protein Powder

Typically made from whey, soy, and casein protein, protein powders are the popular things to put into your smoothies. They’re fast and convenient, and give you a complete source of protein that can help vegetarians and vegans meet their quota, as well as bodybuilders and other athletes to support muscle growth.

The hype is that these powders improve your strength, endurance, muscle size, and energy levels, and will even help you lose weight.

Though protein is critical to good health, studies show that even vegetarians and vegans can get enough through real food, and don’t need more in a powder. We may assume that the extra won’t hurt us, but that’s not necessarily so.

High-protein diets, for instance, have been linked to an increased risk in cancer. A 1992 animal study, for instance, found that rats fed diets higher in casein protein were more likely to develop cancerous tumors.

A more recent 2014 study also found that while a high-protein diet was associated with reduced cancer and overall mortality in participants over the age of 65, it caused a 75 percent increase in overall mortality and a 4-fold increase in cancer death risk among those 50–65 years, and a 5-fold increase in diabetes mortality across all ages.

Plant proteins were found to be safer than animal ones, but researchers noted that the majority of Americans are eating about twice as much protein as they should. They suggested a low protein intake during middle age, followed by moderate to high protein consumption in older adults.

Protein powders are most often consumed by younger adults, however, where they may potentially cause harm. They also tend to have a lot of calories, which can be detrimental to those trying to keep a slim figure (depending on other factors, of course, like daily exercise and muscle density).

There’s also the concern that some protein powders are contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. Consumer Reports tested 15 protein drinks in 2010, and found that all had at least one sample containing one or more of the following contaminants: arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. Researchers noted that consumers who have three servings a day of three of these products could exceed maximum limits for one or two of these contaminants.

They added that intake recommendations on many of the products were vague, and could lead to consumers getting about five times the amount of protein needed per day.

“The body can only break down 5 to 9 grams of protein per hour,” said Kathleen Laquale, a licensed nutritionist, “and any excess that is not burned for energy is converted to fat or excreted, so it’s a ridiculous waste to be recommending so much more than you really need.”

Instead:
Multiply your body weight by 0.4 to get the grams of protein you need per day. A general rule is 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. Check out the protein content in many common foods here. Choose these for better overall nutrition, and skip the powder.

Do you know of other so-called superfoods that are mostly super-hype? Please share your thoughts.

* * *

Sources
Alaina McConnell and Kim Bhasin, “20 ‘Superfoods’ that Everyone Went Bonkers Over,” Business Insider, July 9, 2012, http://www.businessinsider.com/superfoods-that-everyone-went-bonkers-over-2012-7?op=1.

Cao GW, et al., “Observation of the effects of LAK/IL-2 therapy combining with Lycium barbarum polysacchasrides in the treatment of 75 cancer patients,” Zhonghua Ahong Liu Za Zhi, November 1994, 16(6):428-21, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7720497.

Amagase H, Nance DM, “A Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical study of the general effects of a standardized Lycium barbarum (Goji) Juice, GoChi,” J Altern Complement Med., May 2008; 14(4):403-12, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18447631.

“Noni,” Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, http://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/herb/noni.

Kamiya K, et al., “Chemical constituents of Morinda citrifolia fruits inhibit copper-induced low-density lipoprotein oxidation,” J Agric Food Chem., September 22, 2004; 52(19):5843-8, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15366830.

Prapaitrakool S, Itharat A., “Morinda citrifolia Linn. For prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting,” J Med Assoc Thai December 2010; 93(Suppl 7):S204-9, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21294416.

Ben-Arye E., “Wheat grass juice in the treatment of active distal ulcerative colitis: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial,” Scand J Gastroenterol., April 2002; 37(4):444-9, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11989836.

Marawaha RK, et al., “Wheat grass juice reduces transfusion requirement in patients with Thalassemia major: a pilot study,” Indian Pediatr., July 2004; 41(7):716-20, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15297687.

Lipoeto NI, et al., “Dietary intake and the risk of coronary heart disease among the coconut-consuming Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia,” Asia Pac J Clin Nutr., 2004; 13(4):377-84, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15563444.

“Fact Sheet: Coconut Oil and Health,” Food Insight, October 15, 2014, http://www.foodinsight.org/CoconutOilAndHealth.

Hu FB, et al., “Dietary saturated fats and their food sources in relation to the risk of coronary heart disease in women,” Am J Clin Nutr., December 1999; 70(6):1001-8, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10584044.

Kabagambe EK, et al., “Individual saturated fatty acids and nonfatal acute myocardial infarction in Costa Rica,” Eur J Clin Nutr., November 2003; 57(11):1447-57, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14576758.

Nicholis SJ, et al., “Consumption of saturated fat impairs the anti-inflammatory properties of high-density lipoproteins and endothelial function,” J Am Coll Cariol., August 15, 2006; 48(4):715-20, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Nicholls+SJ%2C+Lundman+P%2C+Harmer+JA.

Linda D. Youngman and T. Colin Campbell, “Inhibition of aflatoxin B1-induced gamma-glutamyltranspeptidase positive (GGT+) hepatic Preneoplastic foci and tumors by low protein deits: evidence that altered GGT+ foci indicate neoplastic potential,” Carcinogenesis, 1992; 13(9):1607-1613, http://carcin.oxfordjournals.org/content/13/9/1607.abstract?ijkey=9ca5c14221d707cee955b39e69f5e044f9c14d60&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha.

Morgan E. Levine, et al., “Low Protein Intake is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1 Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population,” Cell Metabolism, March 4, 2014; 19(3):407-417, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S155041311400062X.

“Do protein drinks contain contaminants and heavy metals?” Consumer Reports, July 2010, http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/04/protein-drinks/index.htm.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

6 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. This article was obviously trumped up for sensationalism. I don’t want to take time to address all the issues, but I will say that there are studies and their is research on constituents found in some of these plants. A pasturized juice might not give the same results as a whole plant. As for whey protein, which I avoid, there is research that shows the temperature it’s processed at made all the difference in how it performed. This was published in an article in http://publications.nigms.nih.gov a few years ago. No informed health minded consumer wants to eat casein after The China Study came out. After all these years, I am now unsubscribing. Thank you,

  2. kathy says:

    I agree that too much of any one thing is never a good idea and balance is the key to health. However, it is my understanding that coconut oil is a medium-chain fatty acid, thereby distinguishing it from other oils and making it safer for cooking. Your thoughts…

  3. michal says:

    I am a health-coach, and always like to find a cheaper, sustainable, close to -home obtions , and advise to avoid the bad as much as possible, and be moderate with the “good”, as we are on a constant “see-saw” of different opinions and maybe biased studies of what is considered to be beneficial.
    Blessings and thanks,
    Michal

  4. Josh says:

    Great article! I love the work you’ve put into citing all the studies you referenced. One improvement would be to create a footnote-like reference between the citations and the place you’re referring to them. Also please make the links clickable! 🙂

  5. Selina says:

    Awesome!

    I always think it’s better to find a cheaper and wholesome alternative to superfoods whenever it is possible. Superfoods are convenient, it takes less effort to gulp down a small amount of wheatgrass juice than eating a whole broccoli. But the broccoli might give more benefits overall.
    Also it would be better to get protein from eating just regular whole foods than using powders, but alas, the powder is so convenient for people on the go who perhaps “did not eat enough protein that day and also did a heavy work-out routine and feels like passing out”, and just a banana will not do.

    We should be aware that superfood markets are totally over-hyping so many things, also it’s good to keep in mind that so many come from exotic places and the manufacturing and selling of superfoods might cause ethical and environmental issues in these far away countries (like over-harvesting and soaring prices of local traditional foods and medicinal herbs). This is a form of today’s imperialism. We have plenty of wonderful nutritious foods growing locally, I think we should try to focus on them first.
    Not saying that I am somekind of a perfect thoughtful consumer, I do have some foodies in my cupboard. Ashwagandha is something that doesn’t even closely resemble anything that grows around these parts of the world. I hope someday that we will be able to grow ashwagandha in other countries besides India, it is a plant that I feel many people today would benefit from.

  6. Bella says:

    What’s your opinion on wheatgrass if I grow my own, which is super cheap? Does your stance change? Or do you still prefer broccoli because other greens are so comparable to wheatgrass that it’s not worth the hassle of growing it?

    Comments are closed for this post.