Last night I inadvertently started an argument about the supposed health benefits of green tea on Facebook. Initially, I was merely pointing out that matcha tea does, in fact, contain caffeine, so it should be avoided if you are battling caffeine addiction. I argued that drinking green tea for health is completely superfluous. It doesn’t matter if green tea is higher in antioxidants than fruit. Whole fruits and veggies provide everything you need.
Green tea is considered a superfood. Plenty of other foods are touted as superfoods: goji berries, chia seeds, wheatgrass, cocoa, pomegranate juice…the list goes on.
But what does ‘superfood’ actually mean?
Superfood is simply a marketing term. No official or legal definition exists. Superfoods typically are advertised as being high in antioxidants, a boost to your metabolism, an aid to detoxification, etc. If companies can make a buck, they will promote the health benefits of green tea or goji berries because they know people will buy them. Consumers want to improve their health, so naturally, they are drawn to these claims.
If you search for superfoods online, you’ll only find news articles and companies selling these products. That’s what they are. Products!
What are antioxidants anyway?
People tell me green tea is beneficial because of its high level of antioxidants. So what are antioxidants exactly? And do we need to eat more of them?
Your cells are constantly bombarded by chemicals known as free radicals. Your body creates free radicals as it converts food into energy. Your cells are also exposed to free radicals found in certain foods, as well as free radicals found in the air you breathe. These are unavoidable.
Free radicals are feared because they damage cells, but your body naturally handles these free radicals on its own. Antioxidants, substances found in food, also help combat free radicals, essentially cancelling them out.
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of different substances that can act as antioxidants. The most familiar ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other related carotenoids, along with the minerals selenium and manganese. They’re joined by glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens, and many more.
Do antioxidants provide health benefits?
While free radicals damage cells and exacerbate chronic diseases (heart disease and cancer to name a few), eating superfoods high in antioxidants won’t prevent these especially if you eat them out of their natural state, like in powders and supplements.
Studies have been inconclusive. We don’t have strong evidence that taking antioxidant supplements prevent disease of any kind, but we DO have evidence that a plant-based diet rich in whole fruits and veggies does prevent disease and scores of other health problems.
Don’t focus on specific nutrients.
Mistakenly, people focus on specific nutrients when evaluating foods for health. This is completely incorrect. Believing you need to eat X over Y simply because it contains more of one nutrient is short-sighted.
Certain components of superfoods found in green tea, cocoa, or goji berries are in fact good for you, but eating these in excess won’t guarantee health. Goji berries are just as healthy as any other berry. They might be higher in X or Y, but that doesn’t mean you should spend exorbitant amounts of money on organic goji berry powder for your morning smoothies.
The same goes for green tea or cocoa. Drinking green tea for health benefits is completely unnecessary if your diet is replete with fruits and veggies. And if your diet is lacking in produce, drinking green tea won’t help you at all. Eating chocolate because of its high concentration of flavonoids (thought to reduce blood pressure) won’t help you because of its high fat content.
Let’s say you want to eat chia seeds because they’re high in omega fatty acids. Simply eating chia seeds because they contain a high amount of omega fatty acids doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed health benefits. How are omega fatty acids absorbed? How much can your body absorb at a given time? How much does your body actually need? How do omega fatty acids work in relation to other nutrients consumed? What other nutrients are you consuming when you eat chia seeds?
These questions must be considered. Chia seeds, as you might guess since they are also promoted as a superfood, are high in fat and unnecessary for health. You need to take the larger picture into consideration. Whole fruits and veggies deliver everything you need in a complete package: omega fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, water, fiber, everything!
This fragmented view of nutrition is similar to believing that taking a supplement of zinc is better than eating foods that simply contain zinc in the first place. This isn’t true. Eating nutrients in whole foods is always better.
Closely examine the evidence of ‘health claims.’
Green tea is one of those foods that everyone seems to know the health benefits because they read it online somewhere or someone told them it’s high in antioxidants, so obviously, it’s good for your health. Surprisingly, no one actually researches green tea to verify if any of the health claims are true. And they don’t consider the source of these claims.
Where are these claims coming from? It’s all marketing! No scientist, dietician, or health professional uses the term ‘superfood’ or believes in their hype. There simply isn’t science to back up the claims of these supposed superfoods.
The Dutch food safety organization Voedingscentrum,presented some health claims that marketers use in selling many so-called superfoods such as goji berry, hempseed, chia seeds, and wheatgrass and notes that such claims are not scientifically proven. The organisation warns that people who go to extremes in their conviction and consume large quantities of specific superfoods end up with an “impaired, one-sided diet”.
Studies exist that show the high antioxidant properties of foods like blueberries, for example, but what do these studies actually prove? How was the study conducted? Who were the subjects? These are some questions we need to answer when researching health claims.
Studies used to back superfood claims are typically conducted on rats or human cells in a petri dish using high concentrations of compounds found in these superfoods. Documenting the positive effects of high concentrations of flavonoids found in cocoa on lab rats, for example, doesn’t tell us anything about how these flavonoids affect a person when consumed in the form of a chocolate bar in conjunction with the rest of their diet. Whatever the results of these studies, they don’t give us any information about the actual health benefits of these foods.
So should we drink green tea for antioxidants?
Short answer, no. All fruits and veggies contain antioxidants. Green tea doesn’t provide you with any additional health benefit. It’s completely unnecessary and the health claims associated with green tea aren’t true.
Although numerous claims have been made for the health benefits of green tea, human clinical research has not provided conclusive evidence of any effects. In 2011, a panel of scientists published a report on the claims for health effects at the request of the European Commission: in general they found that the claims made for green tea were not supported by sufficient scientific evidence. Although the mean content of flavonoids and catechins in a cup of green tea is higher than that in the same volume of other food and drink items that are traditionally considered to promote health,flavonoids and catechins have no proven biological effect in humans.
I understand why people feel the need to seek out superfoods. They want what’s best for their health, and given the extent of marketing campaigns, these supposed health claims are unavoidable.
However, I worry that some people reach for superfoods because they are searching for the ‘easy way’ to health and wellness. Fortunately, no ‘magic pill’ for health exists. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the only way to achieve optimum health. Don’t waste your time and money with superfoods.