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.  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.