Superfoods: Marketing Magic or Produce Pretenders?

Cauliflower, Fregola & Persimmon Salsa

The next trend may cast mushrooms in a starring role as meat replacements. USC’s Ernest not only incorporates specialty mushrooms into classic dishes, for example, Shiitakes in a ramen, but he also braises King Oyster mushrooms in the same way that he cooks meat, adds mushrooms to Korean style tacos, and incorporates Oyster and King Oyster mushrooms into pulled pork and barbacoa.

Magee predicts that because mushrooms can mimic the texture of meat, they might be a stealth, and not so stealth, way to help people eat less meat. Mushroom bacon anyone?

An Agreed-Upon Identification Is Elusive

“The term superfood is freely used but loosely defined,” says Joanie Taylor, director, consumer affairs and community relations for St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets, Inc. The family-owned company operates 98 stores and 93 in-store pharmacies in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.

It is difficult to identify what makes some foods more super than others. Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity units (ORAC) is a measurement for antioxidants that was developed by the Bethesda, MD-based National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging — a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services focused on research initiatives for health and aging. It was thought foods with higher ORAC values, specifically, b

Recently, a Rutgers University researcher Jennifer di Noia defined “powerhouse” fruits and vegetables based on their concentration of nutrients and created a list of 41 items. Watercress tops the list, followed by the leafy greens Chinese cabbage, chard, beet greens, spinach, and others. Kale, the superfood poster child, ranks 15th.

Supermarket rating systems yield inconsistent results. Whole Foods Market’s Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) assigns each food a score from zero to 1,000 based on nutrient density. Leafy greens score highest, ranging from 516 for chicory to 1,000 for mustard greens, kale and watercress. Non-leafy green vegetables follow, with scores of 296 to 502. Popular superfoods like nuts (33 to 103) and fruits (71 to 207) have relatively low ANDI scores. NuVal (a rating system used in more than 30 retailers around the U.S., including Kroger and Hy-Vee) generates scores between zero and 100. Although fruits and vegetables generally score in the 90s, some foods considered to be super score lower, namely avocado (88) and nuts (average 59). Most regular produce items get three stars from Hannaford’s Guiding Stars, but garlic, onions, persimmon and dates get two.

Like the term “natural,” superfood does not have a regulated definition. “There is no scientific or regulatory definition of ‘superfoods’ in any country of which I am aware,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., F.A.S.N., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., director, Antioxidants Research Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Boston, MA.

The marketing of superfoods is prohibited in the European Union unless accompanied by a specific medical claim supported by credible scientific research. As such, caution reigns. The website of London-based awareness charity Cancer Research UK states “you shouldn’t rely on so-called superfoods to reduce the risk of cancer. The term superfood is really just a marketing tool, with little scientific basis.”

Health Organizations Embrace Superfoods

Despite a unified consensus, many health organizations eagerly promote superfoods. The Alexandria, VA-based American Diabetes Association highlights those that have a low glycemic index (less effect on blood sugar) and high content of key nutrients, such as dark leafy greens, citrus, sweet potatoes, berries, and tomatoes. The New York City-based National Kidney Foundation names apples, blueberries, kale, strawberries, spinach and sweet potatoes as kidney-friendly superfoods. The City of Hope cites its research showing certain superfoods, namely mushrooms, pomegranates, and blueberries, may have the ability to combat cancer without affecting healthy tissue.

Superfoods Prevail In The Industry

In the absence of an official definition, the industry created its own.

“We refer to nutrient-dense leafy greens and vegetables as superfoods, because they make a significant impact on our consumers’ lives,” notes Tristan Simpson, chief communications officer, Ready Pac Foods Inc., Irwindale, CA. “Superfoods are complex and deeply nutritious, and they make it easier for consumers to lose weight, build immunity against illness, aid in digestion, and improve joint, skin, and heart health.”

“The term superfoods refers to foods that have a high concentration of vitamins and minerals, and provide other various health benefits,” says Bruce Bolton, supply manager, Robinson Fresh, Eden Prairie, MN. “Quite often the identification of these particular foods is decided by regional food enthusiasts and their popularity then quickly spreads.” “We don’t define it in our marketing at Melissa’s Produce,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles, CA-based Melissa’s/World Variety Produce. “It’s a ‘marketing term’ used on foods that have good to elevated nutritional profiles.”

Many items not under USDA marketing orders are actively marketed as superfoods. Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications, Dole Food Company and Dole Fresh Fruit, Westlake Village, CA, notes the term superfood describes fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, oranges, and spinach that are high in certain nutrients that can benefit health.

A growing number of products call out their superfood status on their packaging. The Eat Smart line from Apio Inc., Guadaloupe, CA, displays a round medallion with the number of superfoods in the product. San Miguel Produce, Oxnard, CA, offers a SuperKALE Salad under its Cut N Clean banner. Other San Miguel products list key nutrients but don’t use the word ‘superfood.’

The Emeryville, CA-based SCS Global Services offers an Antioxidant Superfood Certification. “Our Live Gourmet Living Upland Cress displays the certification because it was proven by SCS to contain high quantities of the antioxidant lutein,” says Vincent Choate, director of marketing, Hollandia Produce, L.P., Carpinteria, CA.

In the U.S., items covered by USDA marketing orders cannot use the word. “We can only communicate approved nutritional messages,” says Ann Segerstrom, a consultant to the California Avocado Commission. “As healthful and nutritious as avocados naturally are, claims like “super fruit” have to be substantiated in specified journals.”

Retail Plays A Role

Superfoods are increasingly promoted at the retail level on packaging and signage — despite the absence of a superfood definition. Weis Markets, Sunbury, PA, initiated a superfoods program in 2014. “We created a list of 25 superfoods that stand out for their nutrition, and we promote them throughout the store on signs that list their key nutrients,” explains Beth Stark, R.D., L.D.N., lifestyle initiatives manager, Weis Markets Inc. “We also highlight these foods in articles in our magazine and call-outs in circulars.”

In contrast, Schnuck’s does not promote items as superfoods, but instead responds to changing trends such as the rapid rise, fall, and leveling off of kale. “We still sell much more kale than we used to, because it no longer is just a garnish that nobody ate unless they were hungry,” observes Taylor. “Customers today expect to see it in our stores.” Taylor sees a tremendous opportunity for produce managers to educate team members on talking to customers about foods and health. In addition to supermarket dietitians, suppliers, trade associations and grower/shippers are valuable resources. “Produce department personnel can help people have good experiences through simple strategies such as sampling, recipes, and in-store messaging,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, M.S., R.D.N., founder and president, Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, LLC, Sacramento, CA.

“Our produce managers are available and visible for answering customer questions,” says Meredith Mensinger R.D., L.D.N., corporate dietitian, Redner’s Markets, Reading, PA. “We also run a highly successful sampling program where shoppers can try new items and learn how they pair with other ingredients.”

Superfoods Alone May Not Push Needle

“Produce sales are as much art as science,” notes Ed McLaughlin, Ph.D., director, Food Industry Management Program, Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. “Consumers purchase fruits and vegetables based on perceived benefits that can include convenience, value-added features, recipes, fun, freshness, color, and local. Taste and price matter. By and large, nutrition does not sell; it is the back story.”

Superfoods like Avocado Smoothies

Photo Courtesy of California Avocado

Still, consumers say they’re interested. The Mintel Group found 56 percent of soup consumers want more superfoods in their soup and 65 percent of parents want added superfoods in baby foods. Many buy produce for specific nutrients or to reduce disease risk.

Growth occurs at the intersection of nutrition, convenience, and taste, for example, in prewashed superfood baby greens. “Prewashed baby kale is perfect for the kale- curious,” says Samantha Cabaluna, vice president, marketing and communications, Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, CA. “It takes away the intimidation.”

The appeal of drinking nutrients continues to elevate superfoods, particularly kale, chard and other nutrient-dense greens. San Jose, CA-based Global Industry Analysts Inc. predicts the global commercial smoothie market alone will reach $9 billion in 2015.

“We see a direct link between blender and produce sales,” observes Tim Provost, public relations director for the home-blender company, Blendtec, Orem, UT. “Our sales doubled from 2013 to 2014, and we expect the same in 2015.” “Smoothies are convenient,” says nutrition consultant Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.N. “People might not have the time to sauté a bunch of kale, but sneaking it into a smoothie is easy and it softens the strong flavors.”

Look To Restaurants For The Future

Restaurants often usher in food trends, so the next superfood might be gathering steam on a restaurant menu. According to Chicago, IL-based Datassential, the Top 10 fastest growing items in fine dining are exotic citrus such as Meyer lemons, blood oranges and yuzu, dried fruit, pomegranate, and root vegetables.

“Keep an eye on what’s served at smaller chains,” advises Myrdal Miller of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting. “They are more nimble and in touch with Millennials, which is the group driving kale.”

“Preparation method is highly important when dealing with superfoods such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale that contain compounds that smell and taste bad,” says Ryan Hutmacher, “The Centered Chef” and consulting chef, Weight Watchers, Chicago, IL. “Roasting and other dry-heat cooking methods allow the compounds to evaporate. When preparing a salad with kale or other greens, balance bitterness with richness from a healthy fat, and accent with sour, sweet, or both.”

“Even though we first introduced Jerusalem Artichokes to American consumers in 1965 (and renamed them Sunchokes® a couple of years later), they have been one of the top trending vegetables with chefs in the past four years,” says Karen Caplan, president and cheif executive for Los Alamitos CA-based Frieda’s Inc. “They are a flavorful alternative to potatoes, parsnips, and squash, and many chefs are including them in their winter menus.

“Celery Root continues to be growing in popularity, so much so that when there are gaps in supply from U.S. growers, we are importing from Europe,” says Caplan.

To Many, All Produce is Super

Nutrition experts tend to roll their eyes at the term “superfoods,” noting it’s more marketing than nutrition and it needlessly pits fruits and vegetables against each other.

“Either nothing is a superfood or everything is — depending on how you define the term,” says Matt Fitzgerald, author of Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads. “Superfoods were not discovered, they were invented. Look at potatoes: they are pretty super on balance, so why is spirulina a superfood and potato is not?”

“Some fruits and vegetables have more research behind them because of funding, so just because a fruit or vegetable isn’t supported by a mountain of studies that promote its benefits doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly healthy,” says Ansel. “I have an issue with superfoods because consumers can’t go wrong in the produce aisle,” says Joan Salge Blake, M.S., R.D.N., Boston-based spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Let’s focus on helping consumers eat more fruits and vegetables.” Industry members too downplay the superfood designation. “The reality is all fruits and vegetables are good for you,” says Carly Scaduto, senior communications manager, vegetables, Monsanto, St. Louis, MO. “We want to help boost consumption of all produce, and everyone will benefit.”

Spotlight on Super Sales and Super Nutrition

With two-year sales growth of approximately 20 percent for blueberries and spinach, 30 percent for mangos, and a whopping 90 percent for pomegranate, according to Chicago, IL-based FreshLook Marketing Group, the sales value of a superfood designation is hard to ignore. The following produce items stand out.

Kale continues to be one of the main superfoods in the industry, observes Bolton of Robinson Fresh. “When we began marketing and distributing fresh kale greens in 2009, the main market was for packaged cooking greens rather than salads, as it is today.”

“Pre-washed, packaged baby kale and kale blends have only been out for a few years, but have seen meteoric yearly growth upward of 500 percent,” says Earthbound’s Cabaluna.

Smoothies also propel kale. “One quarter of Vitamix blender owners say they use kale in their smoothies,” says Laura M. Pegg, account executive, Falls Communications, Cleveland, OH, an agency for marketing and corporate communications, branding, investor relations, crisis and reputation management, creative, public relations and media relations.

Catching A Ride On Kale’s Coatails

Other leafy greens are catching a ride on kale’s coattails. “The kale market is becoming saturated, paving the way for other convenient, healthy-packaged options such as collards, mustard greens, and turnip greens,” says Bolton. “Whether they are viewed as superfoods will depend on how aggressively food marketers and the media promote their benefits.”

“We evolved our business from cooking greens into chard, mixed greens, Asian greens, and now salads from dark greens without lettuce or spring mix,” says Garrett Nishimori, marketing manager and corporate chef, San Miguel Produce Inc., Oxnard, CA.

Watercress is enjoying new attention for its high nutrient-density and is one of a handful of items currently bearing a Superfood Antioxidant Certification.

Pomegranate has been transformed by POM Wonderful, Los Angeles, CA, from niche fruit to ubiquitous superfood. Pomegranates and their juice currently are promoted as an excellent source of antioxidants, and POM Wonderful provided more than $35 million to support pomegranate research.

“Fresh pomegranate sales rose from 100,000 cartons in 2001 to more than 2 million cartons in 2008,” says Dahlia Reinkopf, senior director of marketing, POM Wonderful.

“Berries and cherries have deep, colorful hues from anthocyanins and flavonoids, antioxidants that help protect the brain’s neurons from oxidation and inflammation,” says Today Show nutritionist Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D.N. “These little gems are also packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.”Each type of berry has its own unique nutrient and antioxidant profile. One serving of strawberries has more vitamin C than an orange, along with potassium, the B vitamin folate and fiber. Research shows strawberry eaters have healthier blood cholesterol and lower levels of inflammation markers. An extract from blueberries appears to slow the growth and spread of a particular type of breast cancer. Compounds in raspberries are said to protect against cancer and heart disease. More than 50 studies examined the potential health benefits of tart cherries, primarily as juice, and credit them with easing arthritis and muscle pain and aiding sleep.

According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, U.S. per capita fresh and frozen blueberry consumption is projected to increase from 2.4 pounds in 2013 to 3 plus pounds in 2015, with 70 percent of house-holds purchasing blueberries within a one-month period in 2013.

Cranberries are called America’s Original Superfruit and are supported by more than 375 original research and review articles about their health benefits, particularly for the urinary tract. They also were studied for potential in aiding heart health, cancer prevention, and bacterial infections. Despite this, per capita consumption is stable.

Avocado is wildly popular across the U.S. According to the Hass Avocado Board and California Avocado Commission, supply increased from about 570 million pounds in the early 1990s to projected sales of 1.8 billion pounds (3 billion avocados) in 2014. Avocados contribute nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds, along with healthy fat. Research shows eating avocado with tomato sauce or carrots increases absorption of vitamin A. Avocado eaters have been shown to feel fuller after eating, have a more nutritious diet, weigh less, and have higher levels of “good cholesterol” than those who do not eat avocados.

Sweet potatoes deserve to be eaten year-round for their abundant carotenoids, vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants, all in a 100-calorie medium-sized potato.

Mango, like pomegranate, transformed from specialty to everyday superfood. In addition to its antioxidants, a cup of mango provides 100 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin C, is high in vitamin A, rich in folate, provides fiber, vitamin B6, and the mineral copper.

Dates provide 16 vitamins and minerals, including fiber and more potassium by weight than bananas. Date production dropped by 25 percent between 2011 and 2013, although they appear to be more readily available than in the past.

Mushroom production has been climbing steadily since the 1970s, according to the Vegetables and Pulses Yearbook 2014, published by the USDA. Mary Jo Feeney, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A., food and agriculture consultant, Los Altos, CA, says mushrooms provide potassium and fiber, as well as vitamin D when exposed to UV light. “They are very low in calories and can be blended with ground meat to lower calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol.”

“Nuts were a high fat nutrition no-no,” says Maureen Ternus, M.S., R.D., executive director, International Tree Nut Council, Davis, CA. “In 2002, our petition for a heart disease health claim was supported by more than 40 studies. Today, more than 200 research abstracts cover almonds, walnuts, pistachios and others.”

Documented benefits of eating nuts include a lower risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, respiratory illness, or cancer. All nuts provide healthy fat, along with protein and several minerals, and each stands out for its individual mix of nutrients and antioxidants.