From blueberries to nuts and whole grains, antioxidant-rich miracle foods were, we were told a decade ago, the key to combating stress, disease and infection. But, inevitably perhaps, experts' opinions have now shifted to a more complex view
In the early 1990s, a cookbook called Superfoods appeared in the bookshops. It was co-written by the alternative medicine practitioner, Michael Van Straten, who is one of a handful of people said to have coined what has become one of the most spuriously bandied-about marketing terms of our times.
The book revealed Straten's "four-star superfoods", which "supply the vital bricks that build your body's resistance to stress, disease and infection". The list held few surprises, consisting of, you know, stuff that's good for you: common fruit and veg, whole grains, nuts. Foods we're especially keen on eating in January, as an antidote to Christmas excesses. Wouldn't these foods be more accurately described as simply "food" (as opposed to junk food)? Nevertheless, the notion of superfoods was, and still is appealing. Except this century, the term is now used to assign near-magical powers to overpriced, exotic foodstuffs. It's promotional potency went into turbo boost when the theories about antioxidants – probably the most successful "the science bit" spiel of all time – hit the public consciousness. Ever since, food sellers have clambered to keep "discovering" novel, unparalleled sources of "extraordinary nutrients". Waitrose recently introduced yuzu juice to stores as a gourmet ingredient/superfruit. Coffee fruit is the next big super, along with monk fruit, which is sweeter than sugar but with less calories. Both promise antioxidants in abundance.
As anyone who has taken a passing interest in superfoods, or "anti-aging" skincare will know, antioxidants fight evil free radicals which make us old and ill. I shudder to think how many zillions of units this line has shifted in recent years. I started to doubt the validity of this claim when it was applied to dark chocolate and red wine, simply because it started to feel as though it was pretty hard to find a food that wasn't full of antioxidants. Could your average well-fed westerner really have a deficiency?