Long Reads

I Wish This Telegraph Article on Superfoods Were a Joke

September 12, 2016

As the daughter of two very practical doctors and a cake-baker, I'm skeptical of "healthy" foods around which there are big, often ungrounded, promises.

Which is why I immediately clicked on journalist Annabel Venning's article "Why it's time to ditch the 'superfoods' piling up in your kitchen cupboard" in yesterday's Telegraph. Fuel for my fire, I thought.

And the caption under the opening photo—"It's time to ditch the health fads and revert back to proper ingredients"—suggested that Venning would be tackling Moon Juice-style potions, powders, syrups, and resins (the kind of ingredients I'm never quite sure how to pronounce, let alone ingest).

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But as I kept reading, I was surprised to learn that the ingredients she does not consider "proper"—that she says make our kitchen shelves bulge "shamefully [...] with barely used items" and contribute to edible food waste—are not only very versatile, but also fairly common in large parts of the world.

Among the ingredients pegged as "superfoods" that we should stop forcing ourselves to buy are sumac, dried mushrooms (that Venning writes—warning: you might cringe—"smell like a Kowloon undertakers [sic]," referring to the Hong Kong neighborhood); cannellini beans; aduki beans; matcha powder; agave syrup; panko bread crumbs; Ras el Hanout; pomegranate molasses; goji berries ("a universal 'yuk' verdict," says Venning); flaxseed, quinoa, and harissa. These aren't superfoods like the "stress reliever" Brain Dust and the "joy promoter" Shilajit Resin—and if you are at a loss for what to do with them, we've got some ideas here, here, here, and here, for starters.

Photo by James Ransom

So rather than warn her audience of unfounded claims of longevity or virility or gut homeostasis, Venning's message is to stay away from foods they are unfamiliar with. Not only does that take the fun out of cooking but, especially in a post-Brexit age, it impedes cross-cultural understanding. To tell Telegraph readers to empty their shopping carts of these foods sends a strong message: Don't try anything new. Be wary of what comes from another culture.

Venning quotes a health professional friend who tells her that she'd "just been considering sauerkraut and kimchi and then had a serious word with myself... as if I or any of my family will ever tuck into that!" To call these fermented foods—that will last in your fridge for months, that are probably in the homes of millions of people, that can be used in so many ways—unappetizing is close-minded and unproductive.

To tell readers to empty their shopping carts of these foods sends a strong message: Don't try anything new. Be wary of what comes from another culture.

What's just as frustrating but less offensive is that Venning ignores the root of the "superfood' problem which, of course, isn't with the foods themselves but really with how they're marketed. If a customer buys matcha only because it's been branded as a "new" and "trendy" panacea that will clear their skin or give them energy, then yes, he or she might end up disappointed, stuck with a canister at the back of the pantry.

But if there's enough information (recipes, history, flavor profile), a consumer can value that ingredient regardless of any supposed health or lifestyle benefits. That's what I wished Venning had addressed. (Instead, she calls out carlin beans as a pulse "like chickpeas apparently, only four times the price and available at no supermarkets near you" while forgetting that these very beans were touted in the Telegraph less than a year before for their "antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.")

Superfood or fairly common pantry ingredient? Photo by Bobbi Lin

I don't disagree at all with Venning's closing point: "It would be nice," she concludes, "if over-ambitious celebrity chefs and clean-eating queens could make their recipes a little more user-friendly: halving the ingredient lists would be a start, or offering cheaper alternatives."

But the solution isn't to stop buying these foods entirely. It's to provide more information about them (appropriate substitutes, included!). In place of this fear-mongering essay, the Telegraph could have published an informational article on how to use some of the ingredients gaining popularity in the U.K., making the case that cannellini beans (you can even make a cake with them), harissa, Ras el Hanout, and quinoa are valuable, versatile foods in their own right.

It's time to ditch the health fads and revert back to proper ingredients.
Annabel Venning

Venning quotes a mother of three who "pleads guilty to stockpiling cacao powder and dates for Deliciously Ella's 'energy balls'." ...Pleads guilty? Dates taste delicious all by themselves. Or blended into a smoothie. Or sautéed in some olive oil, which also has some health benefits, don't you know? Cacao powder can be used to make brownies or added to short rib chili. Even if you forget about their nutritional properties, there are plenty of ways to enjoy them as they are.

What superfoods would you buy regardless of their purported health benefits? Tell us in the comments!

13 Comments

witloof September 14, 2016
I think that for the most part superfoods don't come in plastic. The real superfoods are fresh fruits and vegetables. Eat a lot of green vegetables. minimize or eliminate processed foods, dairy, sugar, refined grains, meat, farmed fish, and alcohol, and you'll be amazed at the difference in your energy and health.
 
tortellini September 14, 2016
Thank you Emiko for your comment on that silly article, I completely agree with you. And made a resolution to ban the word superfood from my vocabulary, whilst continuing to enjoy my beans, dried musrooms etc...
 
Yianna September 14, 2016
Couldn't agree more, Sarah. Thank you for the article!
 
Jenny H. September 13, 2016
Ignorance of the uses for these ingredients definitely does not give this author the authority to write off things that have been commonly used by world cultures for many centuries. Just because she doesn't know how to incorporate them in her cooking doesn't mean that they are obscure. Dried mushroom, pimenton, kimchi are essentials in my kitchen. These are all "proper" ingredients and it is offensive to call them otherwise. They are what makes cooking/eating a fun adventure. What do they have anything to do with the superfoods trend anyways?
 
Emiko September 13, 2016
This was alarming to read (I went straight to the Telegraph article after reading this! Cannot believe it's true!), I am so glad you've pointed all of this out, Sarah. Cannellini beans, breadcrumbs (panko or not, they are simply breadcrumbs!) and Himalayan pink salt are "obscure" foostuffs? They probably count as some of the most well-used and oldest ingredients known to humans (and in the photograph of her cleared out pantry she's got chestnuts and almond milk!). Your point that all you need is a little information about these ingredients to use them well (and easily! So easily!) in the kitchen is spot on. It seems she only reads cookbooks by 'celebrity chefs and clean-eating queens' but what about the many other good ones that easily have plenty of ideas in them for these good ingredients? It's so narrow-minded, so sad.
 
JC September 13, 2016
Seriously the Telegraph is a joke of a news source.
 
Susan September 13, 2016
Well, I am just, "gob smacked" ! Sounds like a segment from "Ab Fab" which of course would be fitting! It's hard to believe this isn't a joke. When did panko become a superfood?
 
Connor B. September 12, 2016
Love this, Sarah!
 
Stephanie B. September 12, 2016
Lol, I think the English found a new way to complain about the fruits of colonialism. And since when is harissa a superfood? It's peppers. Peppers.
 
Diane September 12, 2016
Really sad post on how “celebrity chefs” made her buy all these items. What a way to be so cavalier about an entire culture(s) everyday ingredients. <br />Our superfood must have: honey. We have an apiary and so many people want to go on about the health benefits of honey but I just think it’s the bees knees of sweeteners.<br />
 
mungo September 12, 2016
Perhaps you're not familiar with how British newspapers work? Each caters to its own little microcosm. The Telegraph's is posh Little Englanders. This is the newspaper that came out swinging for Brexit. This article sounds like a food manifestation of their whole philosophy. Offensive, but not particularly surprising.
 
Andreas D. September 12, 2016
It's an article published in The Telegraph, the newspaper of Little England. Nothing to see here, move along...
 
S T. September 12, 2016
Perhaps they should also get rid of all of those "strange" items that aren't grown in the UK as well, such as Cinnamon, Black Pepper and Sugar. <br />Oi. People.