Magic bullets in nutrition: consumer beware

22 Aug

By: Svitlana Yurchenko

In our fast-paced world of efficient technologies, instant communication and media sharing, the demand for convenient and nutritious foods has also increased.  According to Canadian Food Trends to 2020, a report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian consumers are time and health conscious in their food purchasing decisions (5).  Although healthy eating may be on the minds of many Canadians, convenience options, such as frozen foods, ready-to-eat snacks and take-out meals, are increasingly making their way into our stomachs. Many consumers are also seeking to go “beyond basic nutrition”, choosing “superfoods” or “functional foods” that are marketed to confer health boosting and/or disease preventing benefit(s).  Since the late 1990s, the superfood market has reaped a bountiful harvest of success.   In 2010 alone, it garnered $227 million in sales (5). Like a magic bullet, superfood consumption popularity has exploded in the last 10 to 15 years (5).  So, what gives?

Many Canadians are interested in “superfoods”. These are foods which may confer a health benefit beyond providing basic nutrition.

A common trademark of many superfoods is that they are marketed based on their antioxidant capacities. This includes products fortified with components of exotic fruits, such as noni, açai, goji and mangosteen. These are now included on the shopping lists of many consumers. Antioxidants are molecules capable of reducing oxidative stress which is increased in the presence of free radicals.  These unstable molecules with an unpaired electron can lead to mutative damage and, consequently promote development of conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.   Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals and thus impede the advancement of potential damage.

Marketers are well aware that scientific results based on antioxidant activity tests can be effective in promoting superfood purchase. As such, the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) has become a common term in the vocabulary of superfood marketers.  Developed in 1995, the ORAC assay is performed in a test tube and is used to obtain a measure of antioxidant levels and is accurate so long as like is compared with like (i.e. juice compared to juice) (5).   However, in today’s competitive superfood market, the ORAC is sometimes used to compare powders against concentrates or dried fruits against fresh fruits, seemingly in order to obtain more desirable antioxidant ratings (5).  Utilization of the ORAC scale has served to encourage consumer acceptance and successful business in the superfood market.  However, some researchers are sceptical about the aggressive promotion of superfoods.   Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, believes that “superfoods are about marketing, not nutrition” (5).

It is relevant to also note that, although they reach store shelves armed with promising health claims, not all superfoods undergo diligent regulatory screening in North America.  For example, in February 2010, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned a leading pomegranate juice company about making unsubstantiated health claims. Some of the company’s products were suggested to treat or prevent heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction (3).  Dr. A. Venket Rao, a University of Toronto nutrition professor, agreed that more scientific evidence is needed to support the claims.   “To claim at this time that taking pomegranate juice is the magic bullet that is going to cure these diseases is wrong. The potential for antioxidants is there, without a doubt. But they’ve only shown this in cell culture, which doesn’t mean it will happen in humans. They are stretching it too far” (1). In addition, Health Canada stated that a more thorough examination of the drinks sold on the Canadian market is warranted.

Health Canada’s Food Directorate and Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) regulate the sales of foods and natural health products, respectively, in Canada. However, there is confusion over how to classify certain products. In the case of the pomegranate drink example, Health Canada stated that, although the product resembles a food, it could also “fall within the definition of health products depending on their composition and the claims being made for them” (2). Currently, the product in question is being reclassified from a natural health product to a food.  Irrespective of this change, Health Canada has emphasized that health claims must be substantiated for both regulatory definitions (1). Food or NHP, a stringent regulatory approach seems prudent to shield consumers from misleading messages surrounding superfood and superfood-derived products.  

Raspberry ketones are a recent example of a popular superfood. These compounds, which give raspberries their distinctive smell, are being promoted as leading to weight loss. The proposed mechanism is focused on modulation of adiponectin, a hormone involved in regulating metabolism (4).  The popular TV show host, Dr. Oz noted this potential for raspberry ketones, while saying that healthy diet and exercise are important for weight maintenance. Needless to say, since their mention in the popular media, raspberry ketone products have been selling out in stores across North America.  But is the evidence there?

Raspberry ketones are the newest superfoods on the Canadian market.

In vitro and animal studies do suggest that raspberry ketones are involved in altering fat levels. However, peer-reviewed publications of human trials supporting the ability of raspberry ketones to promote weight loss are lacking. One mice study involved feeding the animals a high fat diet supplemented with raspberry ketones. Fat levels in the mice that received raspberry ketone concentrate were reduced (4). However, the dose of raspberry ketones fed to the mice, was at about 2 % of their body weight, an amount which would be far more than what people would normally consume (4).  For example, a 60 kg individual would have to consume about 1.2 kg of the raspberry ketone extract daily to match the dose tested! Future research must be conducted in order to establish that products are efficacious and to derive the appropriate dose of raspberry ketones for human consumption. Although consumers are lining up to purchase this latest superfood, clinical trials have yet to confirm the role of raspberry ketones in humans.

A final consideration that consumers should keep in mind is that, although a particular antioxidant may be aggressively marketed, berries, fruits and vegetables contain diverse groups of phytochemicals, including antioxidants.  Each fruit is chemically unique and the health benefits of all the individual components they contain are not easily isolated.  It is estimated that fruits contain up to 4,000 compounds with beneficial properties, only 10 % of which have thus far been discovered (5).   Therefore, eating whole berries, fruits and vegetables, provides a supply of health-promoting compounds that perhaps are yet to reach store shelves, in isolation.

So, consumer be aware: We must educate ourselves about superfoods on the market and consider whether the purported health benefits have been substantiated by a community of scientific and regulatory professionals. Ultimately, although superfoods continue to be in the spotlight, wholesome diet and regular physical activity remain the basis of a healthy lifestyle.



1)    Casey, Liam. May 22, 2012. POM pomegranate juice ads exaggerated health benefits, judge rules. Toronto Star.–pom-pomegranate-juice-ads-exaggerated-health-benefits-judge-rules. (August 1, 2012).

2)    CBC News|Health. September 29, 2010. Pomegranate drink not on Health Canada’s radar. (August 1, 2012).

3)    Poladian, Charles. May 22, 2012. POM’s Wonderful Claims are Deceptive, FTC Rules. Medical Daily. (August 1, 2012).

4)    Weeks, Carly. June 03, 2012. Is this supplement a weight loss miracle? The Globe and Mail. (June 20, 2012).

5)    Werber, Cassie.July 28, 2011. Berried Alive: On the trail of an aspiring superfood. (June 20, 2012).


One Response to “Magic bullets in nutrition: consumer beware”

  1. John DZ 05-Sep-2012 at 2:03 pm #

    WOW, such great words of encouragement. You are just dead on the money with your comments. Great post! I will be back soon to read more

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