- Nutrition expert Dr.
Nandita Iyershares her views on what the term ‘ superfood’ actually means, and whether we need to indulge in the trend or not.
- Any food that has a high proportion of one or more of these nutrients — such as vitamins, minerals or antioxidants — qualifies to be known as a superfood
- “If you look at Indian superfoods, something like
amlaclearly tops the list because if blueberries are topping every international listicle on superfoods, amla has fifty times the antioxidant capacity of blueberries.” – Dr. Nandita Iyer
Business Insider spoke to nutrition expert Dr. Nandita Iyer who, after her first book —
The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian — is set to launch her next book
Everyday Superfoods in March, this year. She shares her views on what the term ‘superfood’ actually means, and whether we need to indulge in the trend or not.
In her book, she has a section on ‘Superfood Compendium’ in which she lists out 39 of the most potent superfoods grown in India. These include:
Edited excerpts of the conversation with Dr. Nandita Iyer follow:
What is your definition of a superfood?
When I was researching my book
Everyday Superfoods, the first question that came to my mind is, how did this word come into being? And what I discovered was quite funny. The first-ever recorded usage of this word was in a Jamaican newspaper, and it was actually a reference to a wine brand — they just got creative. And the second known instance was in 1949, where another Canadian newspaper was advertising a muffin using the word superfood. So I think that the whole thing of using this term for marketing is definitely not a new thing because even before the term started being used in its true sense of the word, it was actually being used by brands.
The definition of a superfood is pretty simple — it is any food that is nutrient-dense. Any food that has a high proportion of one or more of these nutrients — such as vitamins, minerals or antioxidants — qualifies to be known as a superfood, which is the well-accepted definition in the scientific community.
Some believe it is just a marketing gimmick. Would you say otherwise?
A true superfood will definitely have health benefits that are good for general health and boosting immunity. But to loosely use this term for processed goods, packaged foods, is definitely, I would say, a marketing gimmick.
In the pre-Covid times, I used to love walking around supermarkets and see what new products were there. And invariably, there would be a whole bunch of new products that called themselves superfood, which is pretty misleading. It is the worst possible way to mislead people who may not be aware of nutrition and who may not be having a scientific bent of mind, so they may believe what is written on the packet. It is just a way to jack up the price of any product — if a regular food item costs X, by calling it a superfood, you can easily charge 5X.
Considering the environmental cost, what are your thoughts on imported food items like avocados,
In my book
Everyday Superfoods, I have a whole chapter on sustainability. Anything that gets the label of a superfood does benefit the farmers who are growing that particular superfood. However, it also leads to a whole bunch of other unpleasant side effects.
Instead of focusing on what is local, instead of focusing on what is in season, everybody starts rushing towards buying that one thing because it is in trend, it is popular, and it is getting a lot of attention and likes on Instagram, and that is not a good way to eat at all.
If a lot of farmers start growing turmeric alone because it is the next big thing it will lead to monocropping – where farmers, instead of growing a variety of foods, grow one kind of food in one place. And that means the soil gets depleted, so they are adding extra fertilisers, further polluting groundwater. So it is like a vicious cycle.
When it comes to quinoa, I think it started getting popular in the 1980s in the US because it began getting imported from Central America etc. Then the United Nations (UN) declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa.” That just led to prices going up, and every farmer in South America was growing quinoa, and they did not even want to eat it themselves because they said, ‘I could sell it for so much more so why should I eat into my own earnings, right?’ The locals themselves stopped eating their ancient grains, something they were so used to, and they started eating wheat and other grains. It just destroys the balance of things in nature. This is why the emphasis is on – what is local, what is in season, and what have your ancestors been eating?
Michael Pollan is someone I really consider a guru, and he says, “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.” And did my great, great grandmother know about quinoa?
That said, this is a complex issue. Quinoa is now well grown in Karnataka. That is why the prices have fallen from what used to be like Rs 1500 or kilo to now it is literally Rs 200 a kilo. The good thing is that the crop does not consume as much water as rice because it is a pseudo-grain and grows in slightly harsher conditions. So it is okay for me to buy quinoa, which is locally-grown and it has not travelled 10,000 miles to reach me.
So there is no binary in this aspect, which is why this whole subject is so complex and so tough for people to decide what to eat, what not to eat. It takes a few extra seconds to see the back of the pack and see where it is grown because it will definitely be mentioned.
Can you give us a bit of a primer on Indian superfoods?
Since we talked about how it is not really a label that matters, the questions we need to ask are, is this a nutrient-dense food? Is this locally available? Is it readily available?
Because anything you label as a superfood is usually costly, it is not available round the year and is often imported from far away. These will be very difficult to include in your daily diet, and like we already discussed, no superfood is a miracle pill that you eat once a year, and your life will be sorted. So, whatever it is, it needs to be consumed in a fairly regular way. It needs to be part of your lifestyle, and for that purpose, these can only be readily available and affordable foods.
If you look at Indian superfoods, something like amla clearly tops the list because if blueberries are topping every international listicle on superfoods, amla has fifty times the antioxidant capacity of blueberries. And it is so cheap, local, and though it is seasonal, the beauty in Indian food and Indian cuisine is that there are at least five different ways in which amla is preserved – it is dried, it is made into a supari, it is preserved in honey, it is preserved as a sharbat, and of course, pickled. So while amla is available possibly for three months in a year, we can actually eat it round the year by just using our traditional preservation techniques. We do not need any factory or industry to be preserving it, these are all home-based preservation techniques.
Fermented drinks like kombucha seem to be all the rage. What are the Indian alternatives to the same?
So, we have our
chaach, and there is a
kaanji made in the North using mustard seeds and carrots fermented over two to three days. In the South, you have
kanji, which is nothing but rice that is overcooked and soft and some buttermilk is added to that, and it is actually kept overnight to ferment. Sometimes it is also hard because when there was rice leftover the previous night and there was no refrigeration in the earlier days, so people would just add water to the rice and leave it outside on the counter. Next morning, it will be slightly fermented, and they will have it with some chopped onion or pickle. In Odisha, you have the
pakhala bhata, which is again a similar thing where it is an overnight fermented rice gruel. This is a double dose of probiotics from fermenting the rice itself, and you are adding buttermilk, which is also a fermented drink.
Do you believe that those who are not buying into this trend are destined for doom?
I definitely think they are not doomed. But the superfoods I have mentioned in my book are so every day that invariably, people living in India are eating many of them in their standard diet. Like dark green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, lobia (black-eyed peas), green moong, these are all everyday ingredients but poor things — they do not come with this crown or this fancy label, but they are superfoods.
Whether you buy into the trend or not, if you are eating Indian cuisine, you are already eating many of these things. We eat turmeric every single day, and black pepper is there in our masalas, plus our chai masala has so many ingredients. So Indian cuisine is so rich in superfoods by itself that even if someone is a non-believer in this trend, they are already eating it. I am sorry to disappoint them.
However, it is definitely not true that they are doomed if they do not buy into the trend because, anything that we adapt, it has to be a gradual change in lifestyle itself, and that is what we need to believe and invest in it rather than just flipping from trend to trend because a trend is very temporary and a lifestyle is forever.
In life, health and nutrition, there are absolutely no binaries. People want binary answers because it saves them from analysing their own life and health problems. They need to think for themselves and find out, ‘Am I able to do this? Is this sustainable for me?’
This is why I get quite frustrated when I see a YouTube video saying, ‘drink this pink tea and you will lose 20 kilos’. Which is one of the reasons I wrote this book. It is not fancy, it is not clickbait, and it is not anything shocking. It is pretty much everyday knowledge, but definitely, that common knowledge and moderation seem to be somewhere lurking in the background. It is not convincing enough for people to follow a more moderate path.
Also, our health is heavily dependent on our genetic lottery. I may abuse my health in every possible way, and I may still live to 100 with absolutely no problems. And someone who is so careful about their health does everything right and suffers a cardiac problem in their 40s.
I am not saying follow the trend and go after every superfood you see, but try to take some baby steps towards a good lifestyle that you sustain for life. Not something you do because it is in the news today.