This is a picture of a local pygmy group (in Uganda), that lives off the land the old fashioned way ...
Superfoods, Functional Foods, and the Standard American Diet
As a Master Herbalist with a long history in the herb and natural food industry, I have seen many different trends come and go.
Along with these trends come terms which get you (the customer) excited about what is supposed to be the next great item on the market.
Terms like superfood or functional food have very broad definitions describing a food’s ability to potentially provide the body with an extraordinary level of nourishment.
The biggest issue with these terms? Almost any food above the average baseline can fall under one of these definitions. With these terms being used interchangeably, how do you know what a superfood or functional food really is?
According to the Mayo Clinic, the definition of a functional food is...
“Foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition”
The technical definition of a superfood is “A nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and wellbeing”. While these definitions sound very similar, there actually is a difference between the two. A question you should be asking is, “Are you being persuaded by fancy terms and marketing?”
What’s “new” is really very old
Before we dive into this controversial topic I want to begin by clearing up what I consider one of the biggest misleading concepts in this industry. The idea that a superfood or functional food is ever spoken of as being “new” makes my blood boil.
Not a single superfood or functional food is new.
All of these wonderful foods have been around for a very long time nourishing the people native to the areas they grow for many generations. These foods are respected by cultures all over the world and the knowledge of the people indigenous to where these foods grow is considered sacred.
About the Coffee in the picture:
Coffee is one of the oldest, time-tested superfoods of Uganda. In fact, every order of this coffee is hand-picked, carefully roasted and ground by hand. The plantation owner takes great pride in growing and processing the beans to maintain a consistent, high quality and nutritious product.
Therefore, when you hear about something being “new”, please don’t look at this expression as meaning the food is a new discovery. I believe the word “new” should be used in reference to its appearance in the US marketplace or based on recent research that came to light about these foods. This would be a far more accurate way of describing the relationship of traditional foods to our modern western culture.
What is basic nutrition?
At the beginning of this article, I gave you the technical definition of a functional food which included the words “beyond basic nutrition”.
I believe what should be discussed is whether we have an actual standard for what we consider “the basics” for optimal human nourishment. While by definition we have a basic standard, the truth, it is very SAD (standard American diet). The standard American diet is nothing more than general guidelines to make sure you don’t suffer from malnutrition. The really SAD part, they have only been updated a handful of times in the last 100 years. The worst part, these basic nutrition principles don’t specify the quality of the food you should eat. This principle way of eating is more focused on portion control rather than quality. Look at all other cultures from around the world, they eat what is local, seasonal and fresh.
Think about this for just a moment...
What if we took the standard American diet and used all organics for the fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and used only grass finished meats, pastured raised eggs, wild caught fish and grass-fed dairy?
What if the standard American diet required you to eat only fresh whole, seasonal foods and nothing processed or packaged?
These basic changes would take an ordinary way of eating and make it extraordinary. I would like to be clear, I am not saying that looking at the portions you eat is not important, I am simply looking to prioritize habits. Remember, a small amount of bad and processed food is still bad and processed food.
Here is some good news…
I believe we live in a time where a good portion of the population has either made some of these changes or is in the process of learning about the importance of these changes. I also believe more people are realizing they should prioritize spending their money on high quality, wholesome nourishing foods. With that in mind, I think what we considered “basic” in regards to food 50 years ago is no longer the case.
Keep in mind, many of the environmental and food issues we have today didn’t exist back then. This is a very important fact in order to understand how and why we are going to redefine what superfoods and functional foods really are.
The purpose of a superfood is to bring a high quality of nourishment to the body.
What sets superfoods apart is that you can live and thrive on them even if you ate just a few of them and nothing else. These foods are very nutrient-dense and provide an extraordinary level of balanced nourishment due to their higher level of quality (based on how they are grown/raised).
Therefore, I believe organic berries, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grass-fed beef, wild salmon, pastured raised eggs, avocados, maca, cacao, and coconut are all true superfoods.
There are many cultures around the world who live and thrive on just a handful of these foods as their staples and have done so for many generations. As you can see, many of the foods on this list are considered “common” foods. This is where the word “super” is very misleading. In this case, the proper use of the word “super” should be referring to the higher level quality of nourishment these foods provide above all else.
Truth be told, these simple commonly found foods listed above really have quite an amazing ability to nourish one’s body. Remember at the beginning of the article I asked if you are being taken in by fancy marketing? I am sure most of you would have never even considered the idea that those “common foods” could be considered superfoods. Why? Because of how they are marketed and this is a perfect example of how “marketing” can be misleading.
The foods that many people know as superfoods like acai and acerola are actually functional foods. If the history of different cultures from around the world has taught us anything, it is that these precious foods were used and treated like medicines. Functional foods are not meant to be lived on for long periods of time. They are meant to be used for short periods of time and specific purposes.
Here is an example.
Acerola cherry is a wonderful source of the vitamin c complex. If you are eating the superfoods described above then the use of acerola is not necessary on a daily basis. All the antioxidants from the berries and cacao, essential fatty acids from the nuts, seeds, avocados, wild salmon and the high-quality nourishment from maca and properly raised animal foods will provide your body with a highly dense level of nourishment.
If at some point your body is in need of strengthening, this is when acerola can play an important role for a specific period of time. These foods are used to help restore the body to a proper state of well being.
Once the goal has been achieved, no need to continue using it.
I hope this article brings some clarity to an often confusing and misleading topic. Understanding and embracing food for what it truly is and focusing on quality (above all else) is where food becomes your foundation for health. We live in a time where we are so concerned with looking at food in a reductionist way that we often miss the big picture.
The purpose of food is to provide wholesome nourishment which allows us to not just
About Michael Stuchiner
Michael Stuchiner is an experienced Master Herbalist, the Head of Education for Z Natural Foods, a teacher, and an accomplished author. With an 18-year specialization in medicinal herbs, Mike also has a vast knowledge in tonic and adaptogenic herbalism. Mike has enjoyed a 25-year career as an elite-level competitive powerlifter where he learned to heal his ‘mind and body’ as an avid user of herbal remedies.
As an “in-the-trenches” herbalist, Mike has done more than 85 speaking engagements, consulted with clients ranging from young to elderly, worked with athletes in virtually all sports and with clients who have “dis-ease” states of a wide variety. Mike also mentors student Master Herbalists and will continue to teach the next generation to grow a deeper wisdom of the human body through appropriate herbal remedies.
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