/ Food & Drink, Health

Do you splash the cash on so-called ‘superfoods’?


I regularly read news stories about the next superfood that will change my life, but are they really worth splashing out on? Find out how much you could save by swapping pricey superfoods for cheaper alternatives.

Because of my background, most of the time I dismiss ‘superfoods’, but if the story is about a new moisturiser or eye cream I get sucked in. And I regularly speak to friends who want to know if they should now be following a fruit-free diet; or cutting out all carbohydrates; or ‘swilling’ coconut oil. My answer in these cases (and most others) is a resounding ‘no’.

Make savings by swapping superfoods

In this month’s Which? magazine, we looked at a range of foods that many people perceive to be healthy or that provide a supposed shortcut to be healthy. Think probiotics, free-from foods and so-called superfoods.

While ‘superfoods’ contain vitamins and minerals, so do many other foods and often in higher concentrations. The term was dreamt up by marketing execs, not nutrition experts. We worked out that you could save up to a whopping £439 a year by swapping certain ‘superfoods’ for other equally nutritious foods.

For example, swapping a handful of blueberries, at 69p, for a portion of two kiwis, costing half the price at 34p, will give you a weekly saving of £36.40 a year and has a similar amount of vitamins C and K. You could also save £268.32 by buying fresh sardines, costing 42p for 140g, instead of fresh salmon at £3 for 140g which also gives you a good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA.

Free-from foods

Similarly, foods labelled as ‘light’ or low-fat are not necessarily always healthier than their standard versions. If you remove fat from a food, you need to add something else back to make it palatable – often sugar.

Figures for the number of people buying free-from foods don’t correlate with figures for the number of people who have food allergies. And while free-from foods can offer a real life-line to those suffering from allergies, for many they have become a life-style choice.

These free-from foods aren’t necessarily any healthier – if you remove wheat from bread you need to replace it with several other things to ensure that the texture and taste aren’t compromised. Sometimes this can lead to higher levels of fat, less fibre or more calories. Most of the time free-from foods are also more costly than their standard counterparts.

While there’s no question that following a healthy, balanced diet can prevent illness and this means keeping your sugar, fat and salt intakes in check along with eating lots of fruit and veg, there really is no magic food that makes the difference alone.

Are there foods that you swear by? Or any other tips you have to staying healthy?


I notice that alongside Chard and Samphire, Quinoa is finding its way onto the menus of restaurants that are trying to be trendy [or have a novelty chef]. I can’t see that a small portion in a lunch or dinner is going to bring many benefits on its own; presumably superfoods need to become a mainstream part of one’s diet. Our tongues haven’t ventured in their direction yet [since we usually steer clear of such establishments]; it would be interesting to know if they are tasty and enjoyable. Or are they just a fashionable fad?

Laura says:
21 July 2014

Many own brand value-range yogurts are probiotic, and cost around 45-50p. Beetroot’s another so-called superfood, and it’s around half the price to buy loose (to cook yourself) that in a jar.


I will buy these foods if they have been discounted for immediate sale, simply to add variety to what I eat. If I read about anything that is supposed to be especially good to eat or drink, my first assumption is that the profit margin is more likely to be what is outstanding.

My suggestion is to follow the NHS guidelines regarding a healthy diet most of the time, and not worry too much about what happens on holiday or special occasions.

Michael Mason says:
26 July 2014

If I had to replace salmon with sardines and blueberries with kiwi fruit I suspect I would probably hang myself within three months, thus saving many more hundreds.


Eat anything, in quantities dictated by what is in the foodstuff. Lets start calling the national obesity problem with the title it deserves, undisciplined greedy consumption.

Dr Charlie - a biochemist says:
27 July 2014

I must admit that I did have some sympathy for the comment made Kennethraine but now have quite a lot of sympathy for the obese.

First of all, this type of comment blaming the obese for their problems seems to arise because of the saying that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie etc.

Unfortunately, it is too simplistic and assumes that the human body behaves in the same way as a retail bank ie you pay your money in and you can then take it our as and when you like with the bank manager acting in a purely passive role – as long as you behave reasonably. However, in the body, the bank manager (the biochemical control mechanisms in the brain and other organs) plays a very active role, determining how your money is kept (stored), where it is kept, how much you can spend etc, etc.

All these biochemical pathways and their control mechanisms have been honed over millions of years and as far as the human is concerned the last few million years are important since our pathways are fine tuned to the foods that we consumed. Over this period, humans were hunter/gatherers and it is only 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution that people started to consume grain in any quantities. In other words, bread being the staff of life is nonsense – animal fat and meat where the prized foods and our pathways are still geared up for these products.

So let’s have a look at a commonly held myth – fat in equals fat on. Total nonsense. If you simply ate an ounce of butter, the fat would be rapidly taken up and used for energy by your muscle cells – including your heart muscle. Fat is a major source of energy for the body and is the preferred energy source of many tissues, including the heart. Notice the fat itself does not stimulate the release of any hormone that leads to the uptake of fat into the adipose tissue.

However, when you eat starch (a polymer of glucose) or sugar (table sugar made up of glucose and fructose), they are rapidly broken down releasing a vast quantity of glucose and in an effort to remove this from the bloodstream, the storage hormone insulin is released from the pancreas. Insulin instructs the cells to take up this excess glucose.

However, insulin also instructs the adipose tissue to take up fat and just as importantly to prevent its release from the adipose tissue. Additionally, insulin also instructs the liver to convert the excess glucose into fat which is then packaged into vLDL particles and released into the bloodstream. Insulin then instructs the adipose tissue to take up the fat within these particles producing LDLs.

I should point out the above biochemistry is not cutting edge but is in first year biochemistry textbooks, for example, Harper’s Biochemistry.

Medics used to tell the population, if you want to slim give up the starches and sugar and if you want to put on weight eat these carbohydrates.

In the 1980s, our dietary advice abruptly changed with the introduction of the food pyramid –out went fat and in came starchy grains. No research whatsoever was done to see what affect this change would have on the population – none – and many like our own expert Prof John Yudkin argued against the change, unfortunately to no avail.

Up above you can see what affect this change would have – the more carbohydrate, the more insulin and the drive to the creation and storage of fat. Since food is being stored, people feel hungry and take a snack/meal of carbohydrate. Since this is stored, they feel hungry and …..
So it is no surprise that since the introduction of the guidelines the number of obese and those suffering from diabetes has risen dramatically and continues to rise. The uptick in the graph was instant and continues.

You can see why I now have sympathy for the obese. If people follow the nutritional guidelines a large proportion of the population will become obese and diabetic.

You would think that the rise in obesity and diabetes, the personal misery and the huge cost now born by everyone through the NHS would give the powers that be pause for thought.


I remember when diabetics were told to at more fat and less carbohydrates. Many died of heart disease instead of the complications of diabetes.

While starch and sugars are certainly to be avoided, vegetables and unrefined carbohydrates are not rapidly metabolised to produce glucose, so thy are a much better dietary choice.

Most people are likely to become overweight or obese if they eat too much and take little exercise.

Dr Charlie - a biochemist says:
27 July 2014

Firstly, as a scientist, I would like evidence that your first statement is true – could you please provide it.

Secondly, could you please present your evidence that the statements I made regarding the central role of insulin is not true ie fats do not stimulate the uptake of fat into the adipose tissue, glucose stimulates insulin release and thus promotes the uptake of fat into the adipose tissue and importantly prevents its release, and insulin also stimulates the liver to convert glucose into fat which is released and incorporated into the adipose tissue. In other words, carbohydrate consumption leads to fat deposition and weight gain.

You point out that starches and sugars are to be avoided – yet this is not the current dietary advice, even for diabetics – they are advised to eat a diet composed of 60% carbohydrate. I would agree with you that some vegetables can/should be consumed but it must be remembered that these contain little carbohydrate, for example, calabrese – 1% carbohydrate and tomatoes and cauliflower – 3% each. This is in a totally different ballpark to say potatoes at around 20% and bread/pasta/biscuits/cakes at up to 50% carbohydrate – and it is these carbohydrates that are recommended – these are readily broken down releasing huge spikes of glucose that diabetics simply cannot deal with.

Exercise is great, it protects the heart, but numerous studies have shown that it is not useful regarding weight loss. Exercise makes people feel hungry and they thus eat more to compensate ie studies show that exercise is good for you but do not expect on average to lose weight in the long term.

Why do you believe that fat causes heart disease? The theory put forward by Ancel Keys in the 50s/60s has been debunked. He provided a graph with about 7 countries which provided a nice line showing that the more the population consumed fat the more they suffered from heart disease, but we now know that he had information from around 20 countries and when the results of all the countries are shown no line can be plotted at all ie there was never any relationship between fat consumption and heart disease. In fact, the two countries who consume the most saturated fat are France and Switzerland – the two countries who have the lowest of all incidence of heart disease.

However, Keys got his way. When Professor Phillip Handler, a biochemist who was the President of the American Academy of Science was asked to back the new dietary guidelines – reducing the role of fat and increasing the consumption of carbohydrate, he refused to back the campaign since there was no evidence to substantiate this move – he even when as far as to testify before Congress that this was the largest experiment imposed on the American people. And we now know how the results have worked out there and in the UK.

In an article by Walter Willett, Professor of Medicine and Chair of the Department of Nutrition within the Harvard School of Public Health (Scientific American, p52 Jan 2003), he stated that “the USDA pyramid is grossly flawed” and “…no study has demonstrated long-term benefits that can be directly attributed to a low-fat diet. The 30 per cent limit on fat was essentially drawn from thin air”. He was particularly upset when he presented a revised pyramid he was asked to justify any proposed changes by providing the scientific evidence when, as he said, this was strange because the original was not backed up by any scientific evidence.

As mentioned by me previously, Professor John Yudkin, our most prominent expert at this time also came out strongly against the new guidelines.

So in effect, the new guidelines were not introduced because of new scientific evidence and they were opposed by many scientists at the time.

CHD was an unknown disease before the 1920s, yet it became one of the greatest killers over the next 60 years. Did the consumption of fat rise during this time – no – throughout the 20th century the consumption of fat remained fairly constant – in fact, it fell a little.

However, surprise, surprise – the consumption of sugars and starches rose.

But, we are still asked to believe that fat causes heart disease, yet there is no credible biochemical evidence to back this up. Whilst the consumption of carbohydrates, the food for cancer cells (they cannot use fat and the consumption of the now readily available glucose goes up by around 14 times to sustain their uncontrolled growth); and the companion starch in “healthy” grain – gluten – continues to send up the rates of autoimmune diseases, such as, the irritable bowel syndromes, type 1 diabetes etc etc.

Why? Look who is sponsoring the various bodies.


Charlie – This Conversation is about superfoods so it would not be relevant to embark on a discussion about human biochemistry and physiology, however interesting we would find it.

I am a bit confused by your claim that fat cannot provide carbohydrates as ‘food’ for cancer cells. Your first year biochem book should cover beta-oxidation of fatty acids and gluconeogenesis, which enables humans to produce glucose from dietary fats and oils.

Dr Charlie - a biochemist says:
28 July 2014

Hi Wavechange – I will repeat the first part of the sentence you questioned below and you will see that I never said “that fat cannot provide carbohydrates”.

The first part of my sentence – “Whilst the consumption of carbohydrates, the food for cancer cells (they cannot use fat and the consumption of the now readily available glucose goes up by around 14 times to sustain their uncontrolled growth);”

I was referring to the fact that cancer cells appear to possess inactive mitochondria, in fact, some breast cancer cells do not possess any mitochondria. This has two implications. Firstly, these cells cannot carry out beta-oxidation and thus upregulate the glycolytic sequence many fold in an effort to provide the necessary ATP. Secondly, since active mitochondria seem to be critical for cells to carry out apoptosis (ie programmed self -destruction), an immortal cell line is produced ie cancer.

So cancer cells are reliant on receiving a good supply of blood glucose from their host since they cannot use fatty acids in the way that most other cells can. Presumably the higher the blood sugar the faster the supply to the growing cancer. Is it then surprising that type 2 diabetics are more susceptible to cancer than the general population – or is it then surprising that the levels of cancer overall have risen with the change in dietary recommendations.

Let’s have a look at another problem related to sugar consumption – type 3 diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease. To keep it brief, I’ll simply quote from a 2010 paper – “In this paper, we highlight how an excess of dietary carbohydrates, particularly fructose, alongside a relative deficiency in dietary fats and cholesterol, may lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease”. http://www.ejinme.com/article/S0953-6205%2811%2900004-5/fulltext

So let’s look at the diseases related to carbohydrate consumption:
Type 2 diabetes
Alzheimer’s disease
Autoimmune diseases eg destruction of the bowel, pancreas, nerve cells etc caused by the gluten component of wheat – I know that it is not a carbohydrate but is a component of “healthy” grain.

So let’s look at the diseases caused by fat consumption:
Er, Er – none. No long term trial has ever shown a relationship between say heart disease and fat consumption. Even the one in 1997 that studied 350,000 men found no linkage and even worse for the Keys brigade a Finnish study found that those men who followed a low saturated fat diet were twice as likely to die of heart disease. So I’ll say it again, no trial has ever demonstrated the advantages of reducing dietary fat.

As you say this topic is supposed to be about superfoods – but my question is – is that topic so important when our nation’s dietary advice was changed for no reason and changed so obviously for the worse.

I’m sure Which would be delighted if you demolished my arguments with scientific evidence.


Charlie – This Conversation is about superfoods intended to be read by members of the general public and it would be unfair for us to derail it. Please respect this.

Dr Charlie - a biochemist says:
29 July 2014

Well if that is the excuse you wish to use for evading a scientific response – I will respect it.