Superfoods: can we see the world in a supermarket shelf?

In my past post on my Assignment of Temporary Expert I wrote about my research on the Systems around superfood. I was aiming to find a definition and gain understanding on the subject to find a focus that I could translate to my Field Guide – the outcome requested by our teacher as the result of those 4 weeks of work with our random topic.

A Field Guide is a book designed to help the reader identify wildlife or other objects of usually natural occurrence. It is generally designed to be brought into the ‘field’ or local area where such objects exist to help distinguish between similar objects. It will typically include a description of the objects covered, together with paintings or photographs and an index.

After having that

The field research

Therefore, I decided to to my field research on Superfoods to start brainstorming about my Field Guide concept. So, since we are in New York and i don’t really think I could go into the forest to find Açai berries, on my way to ITP I stopped at 2nd ave station to go to the Houston/2nd ave Whole Foods in Manhattan.

I arrived to the supermarket and asked a Whole Foods employee for the “Superfoods” section, not even sure if that existed. But it did. He kindly gave me the directions to this specific aisle, that is a section closer to pills, vitamins and supplements than to actual food, and I took a look at the shelf.

I took some pictures, and noticed the irony of researching about superfoods in the supermarket. The idea of having a section about it, a section full of super processed superfoods powders. The irony of seeing the “exoticism”around those plants and fruits that come from different places on the world, to end up as super marketed made up superfoods. Because as we saw before, superfood is a pure marketing concept. And this was crystal clear when you looked to that shelf – at least to me. I wondered about the impact that the trendy boom of superfoods made to Açaí berry producers, Chia, Moringa plantations.

At the end of my observation, I realized if wouldn’t it be interesting if there was actually a field guide to the supermarket where we could analyze the origin and process of the items.

By process and origin I don’t mean only what was the physical route,  how much energy and work were made to have it there, but, besides that, and in this case I think even more relevant, how the cultural and historical process of our relationship as humans attached to this specific nutrition resource was developed so it would end up in our shelves, with this labels, and what is the social impact of that with this megalomaniac market oriented relationship we have with it today.

Organizing my thoughts

I printed the picture that I took and started to identify the main plants and foods that appeared.

Also, I decided to play with the idea of juxtaposing a map on top of the shelf and therefore also printed a map to start researching and playing with the origins of those superfoods.

Finally, I did a rough mock up of my idea for the field guide and started gathering some references.

I still need to draw a better mock up before I start actually designing it.






Making a poem & Potential automated poetry slams

At one point Elementary School, in one of my Art classes,  I remembered we played with the ideas of the Dada movement by following the instructions on how to make a Dadaist poem made by Tristan Tzara:


For the purpose of working with my assignments for Coding from A to Z and Hello computer, where we were asked to edit a text input and make  your code “speak it to you”using the Speech Synthesis API, and taking this exercise as a reference, I created a webpage where you can create your own digital Dadaist poem according to Tzara’s method and make your machine recite it to you.


You can make your own poem here and check the code.




Learning D3 and the art of making ugly/bad charts

I started using D3.js last semester for my Impossible Maps final  and I want to learn more on how to use this library to create Data Viz projects. Thus, one of my goals during this semester in our Data Art class, is to explore more of it.

Therefore, when the teacher asked us to create three different visualizations for the same dataset for our first assignment I started my D3.js crash course.

In order to understand the basic commands, I started follwing these YouTube tutorials, that I thought are very good.

I made some really ugly and random drawings that reminded me of my early P5.js days.

From there, using the dataset provided, my very little new acquired knowledge of D3, and some examples available online, created 3 basic (and ugly, and probably not very user friendly) charts to visualize it in different ways.

You can check the code in my Data Art/Week1 Github repository and the examples below.

Bubble Chart



Bar Chart



Not Very Understandable Pie Chart



As you can see there is a lot to improve!!! But that was only the beginning 🙂

I’m exciting to keep exploring Data Viz, Data Art and the D3.js library.












Systems Thinking and Superfoods

#1 Assignment

For this first assignment of Temporary Expert we given a random research topic related to “energy” in order to learn how to analyze it through Systems Thinking. It was a random topic since the idea is not to necessarily get deep and enthusiastic on the topic itself but the methodology of research.

My random topic is Superfoods.

What actually defines a superfood? Nutritional value? Comparing to what? How “exotic it is? Marketing? Culture? Economy? … when did it started to be used? Why?

I hope I’ll be able to understand this term and map the systems behind it in the next paragraphs.


But first… What is Systems Thinking?

According to Howard Silverman, “A system is a set of interacting or interdependent component parts forming a complex/intricate whole.” It has three basic features that are (A) parts or elements, (B) interactions or relationships, and (C) a function or purpose or emergent properties or behaviors.

With that, we can think about different systems such as education, democracy, a social network, eastern medicine, and so on. As our teacher, Marina Zurkow,  illustrated when she was presenting this concept, the same exact thing can and probably will be analyzed very differently through the eyes of different systems, as we can check below.

When we think about religions, and branches inside those religions, we can also see totally different ways to see the same concept or value.

In another study case, when following a heated discussion on twitter to organize a protest in which environmentalists plan to destroy a crop of genetically modified wheat, Steve Easterbrook identified a couple of systems that helped him analyze this issue. You can understand the idea behind the system of the scientists doing research, the system behind research ethics and risk management, the economic system in which investment in R&D is expected to boost the economy, a system of intellectual property rights and the corresponding privatization of public goods and so on.

Thus, as we can understand, each system has a specific perspective and point of view.

With that, on the next paragraphs  I’ll make some research around my topic (superfoods) to figure out how to identify and map existing systems (and points of view) around it.


Superfoods: a bit of research

Starting with the basics

Let’s see what Oxford dictionaries has to say about Superfoods.

and, of course, Wikipedia.

Initially, once reading the definitions and examples from these sources, we can understand that, generally speaking, superfoods refer to foods — especially fruits and vegetables — whose nutrient content confers a health benefit above that of other foods. However, there is no technical definition of the word and the scientific evidence for the health effects of these foods, once the main interests of creating this concept and making it become popular come from a marketing perspective of economical interests.

But let’s dig deeper.

How academy sees Superfoods

According to this book Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide  by Matt Fitzgerald (a nutritionist, athlete, coach who writes for a bunch of nutrition and sports magazines), and this very interesting paper on the Parallel Food Classifications in Developing and Industrialized Countries  , the idea of the superpower of foods is old, very old.

I mean, it does make sense, food is what makes us alive and that’s already a crazy power. So now imagine that you don’t live in an industrialized, globalized world. Therefore, in your life, agriculture takes a way bigger role and tangible importance than today. If there is a dry season, you are directly impacted by it. If there is a plague, same. So having the ability to receive energy from food and having it in abundance, is, by itself, a super power.

Derrick B Jellife explains more about this relationship in some societies with specific foods, classifying those sources of energy as cultural superfoods.

“The characteristics of cultural superfoods are that they are usually, but not always, the dominant staple and main source of calories, while their production and preparation occupy a major part of the community’s work time, both agriculturally and domestically. Because of their importance for the survival of the particular community, they often have a semidivine status, being interwoven into local religion, mythology and history”.

Below you can check some examples of how he classified cultural superfoods.

Still, even though having a god/superpower like relationship with that specific food, the label superfood was not a term that the Aztecs used to describe cacao and chocolate for example.

So when did it start to be used and why?

Nutrition Academics don’t use the term Superfood as described in the dictionary

So from our definition of superfoods, I wanted to have a broad definition and general idea of what nutrients our body actually needs and what are the essential nutrients  – because even though I am a human that eats, I haven’t touched this subject since Biology class in High School.

According to this giaenourmous book of Oxford Press on human nutrition (Essentials of Human Nutrition, by Jim Mann, Stewart Truswell)  there are essential nutrients that a human body needs to function in a healthy basis. Those are defined as “chemical substances that cannot be synthesized at all or in sufficient amounts in the body, and are necessary for life, growth and tissue repair.” As a result, essential nutrients are carbohydrates, fats, fiber, minerals, proteins, vitamins, and water.

I would love to enter in more detail on that, but, for the matter of time and focus for this first week assignment, I feel this is not really necessary – I need to understand the systems surrounding the superfood term, rather than try to define or test the term myself. So i decided it was better to stop there.

The most curious thing regarding systems mapping on superfoods that I took from this book?

It mentioned superfoods only twice. Both related to the word popularity in a market/economical sense. It became popular since it was labeled (the authors do not specify by who, but I think we could imply that as companies, enterprises) as a superfood. This book was edited recently, in 2012, seems to be one of the nutritionist “bibles”on the subject.

In this paper from the British Nutrition Foundation by J.Lunn entitled Superfoods, he starts with the sentence “These days, competition in the supermarket is fierce…”. He does highlight that it is a term that was used in scientific press, but usually to describe more energy dense ones rather than foods that are richer in a nutrient that would have a specific benefit.

With those sources in mind, I believe we can assume that this is not a word that comes from a nutritional experts background but from a Marketing/Economical one.

The trending market of  Superfoods

According to this article from The Harvard School of public Health, “the earliest recorded example may have taken place in the early 20th century around World War I, used as part of a food marketing strategy. The United Fruit Company initiated an enthusiastic advertising campaign to promote its major import of bananas. It published informational pamphlets including Points About Bananas and the Food Value of the Banana. [1] Initially the company had advertised the practicality of bananas in a daily diet, being cheap, nutritious, easily digested, available everywhere, good when cooked and not cooked, and sealed by nature in a germ-proof package. To get people to eat more, they suggested adding bananas in cereal for breakfast, in salads for lunch, and fried with meat for dinner.”

In other sources, it  appears to have been first used in a Canadian newspaper in 1949 when referring to the supposed nutritional qualities of a muffin.

Since the beginning of the 90’s the term “superfood” has been frequently used as a marketing tool for selling specific foods, dietary supplements, foods with selected food additives, and self-help books about diets, promising an enhancement to health. The essentials are in place: scientific research on a particular food, catchy headlines from the fast-paced popular press, as well as infomercials and marketing campaigns of involved food industries.

Coinciding with the natural foods movement and greater public awareness around healthy eating, in 2012, 61% of people in the UK have purchased a food because it had been labelled a superfood, accordingto YouGovresearch commissioned by Bupa.

According to Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD), superfoods, including superfruits or supergrains, saw an increase of over 200 percent in new product launches between 2011 and 2015.

The Superfood Evangelists

According to this article from Refinery 29, “Superfood” is was first coined by Michael Van Straten in 1990 in his Superfoods cookbook. Like Michael, we can find a lot of evangelists and  ‘specialists’ in Superfoods with a considerable number of books, articles and youtube videos on the subject.

They are advocates of healthy eating and very passionate about teaching the powers of specific fruits and vegetables. They believe that our nutrition potential is finally catching up with technology, that now with globalization and the ability to have quality products and knowledge from nutrition around the globe “a new day is dawning in the world of nutrition”.  David Wolfe and Debora Klein are some examples.

In his book, entitled Superfoods, David Wolfe splits what he calls special foods into three ancient food groups: the Living, raw plant foods; Superfoods; and Superherbs. This is the first description of Superfood used in his book:

He describes superfoods as both a medicine and a food. His book revolves around the benefits of specific foods and how to include it in your diet, focusing mainly on the top ten superfoods described as:

Public Departments and Labeling food

While the term may seem official, the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which has regulated the word “organic” since the ‘90s and the term “gluten-free” since 2013 — has yet to create any guidelines for “superfood,” explains Sharon Akabas, PhD, the associate director at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University. “The word ‘superfood’ has no actual meaning,” she says.

In fact, in 2007 the EU legislation banned the use of the term superfood unless it is accompanied by a specific authorised health claim that explains to consumers why the product is good for their health.

Systems Thinking: Mapping Superfood

From this brief research and understanding of superfood and its Systems, this is where I arrived.

This was just a first quick glance at the Systems surrounding Superfood. I will deepen this research in the next weeks.

I believe there is further research needed in order to understand  the  Systems that create legal regulations towards labeling Superfoods and mainly about the “trend of healthy eating” and Exoticism, that associates Superfoods with Western Medicine.



What does Open Source means to me?

Open source is a way to create digital projects. To share your ideas, to help and get help. To co-create and make projects happen. Open Source – ideally – is an extension of what the utopia of the internet is: democratic, accessible and collaborative.

Even though Open Source represent all of the amazing rainbow shiny things mentioned above, I’ve never contributed to any Open Source project. I have definitely flirted, and still am actively flirting with some, but it’s usually more of a platonic relationship rather than a collaborative one.

I really identify with  Vesha Parker said in almost all of her interview with Jen Kagan, mostly when she mentions how intimidated she was about actively collaborating on Open Source Projects. As a beginner on programming, I don’t feel that I am quite prepared to start trying to fix issues or to be part of a community of  “experts”.

Like I’m not on that level yet.

I see projects like Serenata de AmorThree.js, AR.js and it really inspires me to keep studying and looking forward to becoming a better coder.  I do believe in the quote by Matt Mullenweg, also mentioned in the Vesha Parker interview, that “open source is a moral thing”.  We should support each other and look forward to create tools hat can help users, that can make content and data more democratic and to make this process explicit and accessible.

I hope that with this class I can “break the ice” and actively become part of the open source community.

In sum, for me, Open Source is: democratic, collaborative, a great way to help change the world AND intimidating – YET.