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The word “superfruit” has no technical definition.  It is not a scientific term and has no particular attributes or qualifying threshold values of any compound.  In fact, it’s simply a marketing idea that entered the public sphere around 2005 and has continued to saturate the minds of consumers (and the pockets of food and beverage producers) ever since.  As a concept that has no real denotation (definition) but does have many connotations, it’s worth a look into the idea of the “superfruit” in order to understand how it might actually be of use to you as a health-oriented consumer.

In many cases, a regular old fruit is upgraded to superfruit status due to its antioxidant properties.  By now, most people have come to understand that antioxidants are generally good for you.  However, there are more to antioxidants and the analysis of their presence in a food product than meets the eye.  Antioxidant compounds are defined as those capable of preventing the oxidation of other molecules.  Oxidation is a chemical process in which one molecule donates or loses and electron from one of its atoms and transfers it to another molecule.  While oxidation is a normal part of everyday life at the cellular level, it can go awry.  When oxidation happens at the wrong place or time, it can cause problems in DNA structure, protein folding, and other intricate processes within cells, leading to cancer, decreased cellular function, development of cataracts, and other issues.  The agent of poorly-timed oxidation is often the free radical.  A free radical is a molecule that has lost an electron and is therefore extremely reactive.  In fact, it will react with almost anything it happens to run into that can donate an electron.  As it steals an electron, it completes its electronic structure and goes on about its normal business.  However, its molecular victim is not so lucky.  Because it is now down one electron, it becomes a free radical and begins searching for an electron to re-stabilize itself.  This process of cyclic attack is known as the free radical cascade.

Fortunately, there is a solution to the cascade problem: antioxidants.  While there is a myriad of different types of molecules that can function as antioxidants, they all are similar in that they are able to donate an electron without becoming a free radical themselves.  Usually, this ability to effectively absorb free radical oxidation is due to particular structures built into the atomic organization of the antioxidant compound.  One such structure is the phenol ring.  A popular group of antioxidants is known as the “polyphenols” because each member contains more than one phenol ring.  In the case of polyphenolic antioxidants, their phenol rings are able to donate an electron to a roaming free radical but, because of the way electrons are shared between carbon atoms in a phenol ring (electron delocalization), the polyphenolic compound remains stable and does not become a free radical.  There are atomic structures other than the phenol ring that confer similar antioxidant ability, but their detailed description goes beyond the scope of this article.

The important thing to remember is that not all antioxidants are the same and that they may not behave similarly in the body.  In addition, a single food may contain a number of different types of antioxidants.  However, despite these significant complexities to the antioxidant picture, marketing professionals often boil down the antioxidant capacity of a product to a single number: its oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) value.  A food’s ORAC value indicates its ability to neutralize a particular type of free radical known as a superoxide.  The ORAC value is a poor choice to represent the potential health benefits of a food for a number of reasons.  First off, the ORAC rating is determined using trials performed in a test tube, not a human body.  Not all of the antioxidants in a product are absorbed or are bioavailable within the body following ingestion.  Therefore, the data resulting from ORAC testing do not accurately represent a food’s antioxidant impact on a human subject.

Secondly, the ORAC test examines a sample’s effect on only one kind of radical.  Besides superoxide, there are a number of other types of free radicals within the body that may be affected differently by a particular antioxidant.  Generalizing the antioxidant capacity of a compound based on its interaction with only one type of radical limits the utility of ORAC data in assessing the potential healthfulness of a food product.

Essentially, marketing professionals in the food industry assume that the public is dumb, lazy, and easily convinced of almost anything.  Unfortunately, they are too often proven correct.  They like the ORAC value because it’s simple, involves catchy, “scientific” terminology, and makes nice little bar graphs that fit perfectly on packaging display panels.  If you’re reading this blog, however, you’re on the right track to getting away from the norm and learning how to investigate facts for yourself.  As a small side note, I hope that you continue your research into topics like this one even beyond reading the NP Blog.  Search for other information on the subject, take a look at some recent journal articles, and stretch your brain a bit.  Not only will you learn something new, but you can actually apply this stuff to improve your everyday life!  The search for knowledge is essential for a productive mind, so keep at it.

Finally, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print.  As with all foods, the producer is trying to minimize costs and maximize profits.  The superfruit concept is a perfect vehicle for these goals.  First of all, the “superfruit” name is an unregulated buzzword that means nothing but which the public loosely associates with health.  Secondly, because superfruits are often incorporated into products as juices, it’s easy to hide the actual amount of the advertised fruit present.  A great example of this deceptive practice occurs all the time in the case of juice blends.  Food companies are required by law only to state the total percentage of juice in the product and not the percentage of each individual juice used.  So, a product may contain less than even 1% of each superfruit juice and still include all of the graphs, pictures, and shady “health claims” on their labels that pertain to the superfruits.  Remember, these exotic juices are expensive!  For example, I can advertise a juice blend product that is plastered with pictures of pomegranates, acai berries, and goji berries.  I can put a “100% fruit juice” statement on the front of the bottle.  I can include all the ORAC information on the side panel on the packaging and talk about how acai is imported from the amazon and has an incredibly high concentration on antioxidants.  However, when I formulate the product, I can use 98.5% white grape juice (cheap and nutritionally anemic), 0.5% goji berry juice, 0.5% acai juice, and 0.5% pomegranate juice.  I can then flavor the product with “natural flavors” that add only around another 0.01% of actual “superfruit” juice to the final beverage in order to disguise the fact that I’ve essentially made colorful grape juice.  Finally, I can sell the juice blend at a premium price in a fancy bottle with awesome graphics and bright colors.

As you can see, the superfruit game has a lot of holes through which food manufacturers can slide.  It’s up to you to pay attention to the labels and search out the important information.  If a company isn’t overtly up front and honest about the complete formulation of its “superfruit” product, then it’s most likely a waste of your money.

So what’s the best answer if the ORAC value, while popular, is unreliable and food manufacturers are clearly in the business of deceiving the consumer?  Well, stick to the fundamentals and you will very likely be just fine.  Regularly consume relatively large amounts of colorful fruits and vegetables, especially berries and cruciferous products.  Search out the largest variety of plant foods (including the so-called “superfruits”) that you can in order to ensure that a wide range of antioxidants and other useful phytochemicals make it into your body.  Consistency and variety are more important than potency, in most cases.  In addition, some research has shown that too much of a good thing can have ironically negative consequences.  Compounds that normally act as antioxidants can actually become pro-oxidative!  So eat your fruits and vegetables and don’t believe the hype.  Many fruits with high antioxidant concentrations can be quite good for you in moderate amounts, but there’s much more to fruits and vegetables than their antioxidant capacity.  Forget the marketing misinformation and do some research of your own.  Remember, if the package is bright, colorful, and fancy, then someone is most likely trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

 


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    Rob Bent is the founder and lead nutrition counselor at Nutrition Perfected.  He is a multi-sport athlete and works constantly to maximize sports performance through scientifically-guided nutritional optimization.

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