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We have the data on superfoods – now what?

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Jeremy tackles superfood in his latest newsletter. Do subscribe.

The ultimate expression of food as medicine is the search for active ingredients. Why go to the bother of eating broccoli or Brussels sprouts if you can swallow a pill of glucosinolates and get all that cancer-fighting power directly? I’ve even seen arguments that beneficial phytochemicals be purified from wild plants and somehow incorporated into the batter for chicken nuggets. So I’ve long been skeptical of an effort launched a while ago to compile a periodic table of food, described as an initiative “for generating biomolecular knowledge of edible diversity”. I didn’t link to the original paper because it was behind a paywall but now that two of the 56 authors have written a kind of press release I’m happier to do so.

Superfood – Unveiling the “Dark Matter” of Food, Diets and Biodiversity explains how little we know about the molecular composition of the vast majority of edible plants, and that to learn more will take “a united scientific movement, larger than the human genome project”. Such a movement, in turn, calls for standardised tools, data and training to ensure that results are comparable.

What have we learned from the tools, data and training, so far? As an example, the authors offer

Broccoli, which achieved “superfood” status several years ago for its antioxidants and its connections to gut health, has over 900 biomolecules not found in other green vegetables.

And? Does that mean the broccoli pill will need more than glucosinolates, which are also present in many other brassicas? What does it mean, other than that we need more research?

There are larger goals. One, I think, is to somehow reverse the current trend for people in the West to fall upon the latest superfood with a cry of glee until the next one comes along, without giving anything back to the indigenous cultures that discovered and preserved the superfood. Calling for capacity-strengthening, the authors say “it is time to start opening the black box of food and create more nourishing food systems for everyone”. M’kay.

Another goal, I think, is to ensure that government dietary guidelines are based on more complete knowledge, despite the fact that even now it is more or less impossible to get people to follow those guidelines. Will having more molecular data help?

Full disclosure: I used to work for one of the organisations behind the Periodic Table of Food Initiative and I count many of the researchers as friends. I still don’t see the point, but please check out the gorgeous PTFI website for yourself and let me know why I am wrong.


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