When Superfoods Aren't So Super

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

I used to love the superfood trends that popped up in the health world, some of which are actually written about on The Healing Goat. From ashwaghanda, manuka honey, and hemp to moringa, cacao, and coconut oil, people swear by their healing powers and teach us how to use and cook with them.

Until recently, I have raved about the interesting flavors and seemingly miraculous health benefits that some of these superfoods possess. I have convinced friends, family, and myself, that these foods are worth the cost and can be used as natural alternatives to supplements and pills. However, I was so caught up in the excitement that I was ignoring the negative effects that come with the production of superfoods. Many people do not realize the impact of mass superfood production on the environment and native country of origin.

As I shifted my focus from individual health to incorporating the health of our planet, I began to realize that many of these foods have caused a lot of harm to our world. Not only are they being mass produced by the western craze that spikes when a new superfood hits the media, but they are often shipped from the other side of the world which negatively impact the environment and exploited workers. The focus on certain foods that would have otherwise remained unheard of to us in this area of the world, leaves workers and our planet with a demand that is suddenly too high to keep up with. In addition, it distracts us from super foods that can be found right in our own backyard.

Environmental Impact of Superfoods

With a quick google search, I have found the largest producers of some of the most well known superfoods in the past few years. Cocoa comes from Ghana, moringa and turmeric from India, maca and quinoa from Peru, chia seeds from Latin America, goji berries and hemp from China, manuka honey from New Zealand, coconut from Indonesia, Acai from Central and South America, and matcha from Japan. Now, many of these foods have begun to grow commercially in other places, but the majority of them still come from their native countries.

This leaves the question, how are they grown and how do they get from there to here?

In countries where native people have smaller scale farms and focus on feeding their families and neighbors, traditional farming techniques are more common. Polyculture is used, where multiple plants are grown side by side. This method prevents the soil from being depleted of nutrients and provides farmers with insurance that if one plant fails to grow other plants may still survive. Along with polyculture, traditional agriculture avoids use of chemical fertilizers and poisonous pesticides.

As soon as crops reach a certain increase in demand, large commercialized and modern farms start to consider the benefit of mass producing these plants. Farms outside of the plants' native countries begin to grow using monoculture, growing only one plant in a large area of land. Monoculture has many negative effects on the earth such as increase susceptibility to pests and disease, degradation of soil health, and an increase in use of chemical pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers.

Aside from the harsh treatment of the land itself, higher demand of exotic plants comes with an increase in food transportation. In food production, almost 11% of greenhouse emissions comes from food transportation. Shipments from places like Peru, Africa, India, and China are far from local and do not get to us without leaving a trail behind.

Soil depleted of nutrients

Effects on Native Plants and People

When the western world has discovered new foods that are quickly labeled as superfoods, the demand skyrockets. Take quinoa, for example. The trade of quinoa has nearly tripled in the past four years. Quinoa grows natively in Peru, where it grew next to local oca, potatoes, and kniwa. Quinoa that once sold for less than $.25 per pound, began to sell for $4.00 a pound. Farmers in Peru had a sudden influx of money! Woohoo! That is, until the price settled back down to around $.60 per pound. The money that was suddenly rushing to Peru farmers to help send their kids to school and help them out of poverty was just as suddenly taken from them. What exactly caused these sudden changes in prices and demand and how did it effect the native growers?

When demand for quinoa grew, all looked great for local farmers. Higher demand meant they could increase their prices and the money was rolling in. But as soon as quinoa began being commercially produced in other parts of the world, using modern agriculture techniques such as monocultures and chemical pesticides, quinoa appeared to become easier and cheaper to grow. This created competition in the market, leaving native farmers with two options - run out of business or take on modern farming techniques that allow them to match the quantity and prices of their new competition.

In order for smaller farmers to stay in business, they often must adapt their techniques to have a chance against their competitors. This means leaving their traditions behind them. But what will happen if/when western demand for one superfood dies down because a new fad hits the headlines? And what will happen when competing farmers start to grow these foods with cheaper and faster methods?

The spike in business may be good for their economic situation in the short run, but loosing ancient farming techniques and adapting to the influence of the western market ultimately takes a negative toll on native farmers. If native farmers of a superfood cave into the system and take on monocultures, they are going to pay the price if the demand ever goes back down. They will become dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as monoculture agricultures so often are.

With the increasing demand of superfoods, native farmers have to confront how they will respond to competition in the market. They will experience a short run of economic growth, but in the long run the western demand may leave small farmers with infertile soil, failed monocultures, and a reliance on toxic chemicals and a western consumer.

Superfoods in Our Backyard

I believe that shopping local and organic (organically produced, not necessarily organically certified), is one of our most powerful tools in reducing our carbon footprint and supporting the environment. While I am not suggesting to never touch a superfood again, I think that it's important for us to think twice about where it comes from and what effect is has on it's place of origin. Before reaching for an acai bowl, a chocolate bar, or matcha latte, we should be asking ourselves if there is another food grown closer to home that can provide us with what we are looking for.

Blueberries are loaded with antioxidants, pumpkin seeds are high in fiber, vitamin B, and iron, and sweet potato are full of vitamin C. Kale, spinach, dandelions, garlic, and collard greens are all packed with vitamins and minerals and you can grow them all fairly easily in a small backyard garden! Chicory root, dandelion, nettle, lavender, oregano, sage, and rosemary are beneficial to various parts of the body and can be grown locally as well.

The blog Sustainable Baby Steps offers amazing local substitutes to coffee, found here. Although not commonly considered a superfood, coffee often comes to mind when thinking about every day staples that come from across the world.

There is so much power in knowledge and so much health that can be found in foods that grow locally and sustainably. You don't have to boycott every "superfood" from across the world, but stop and think about it! Is it worth it? Is there an alternative?

Although the ups and downs that came with the quinoa superfood craze does not necessarily mean all superfoods will end up harming native workers and their farming practices, we must consider the possibility and decide for ourselves which superfoods are worth the risk. Each exotic superfoods production is different, each countries farming practices are different, and each economy is affected differently from increased demand. Do your research and think about buying these products with your brain and heart, not just your taste buds!






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