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).
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.
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.
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.")
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.
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!