“Thought for food” (Tilapia, superfoods)


Much of the U.S. public lacks a strong grounding in science and this distinction extends to many journalists. However, unlike the rest of the public, journalists are professionally obligated to learn more, or at least find a source who does, when reporting on science stories. Often, this does not happen, which is how Dr. Oz and the Food Babe can go so long before being challenged.

It also allows unfounded fears to foment, which is why tilapia is often in the same sentence as “warning” and “risks” in mainstream newspapers articles and television news broadcasts. Tilapia is sometimes said to contain high amounts of PCB and mercury, even though it has very little of these, driven by the fact that tilapia have a short, mostly vegetarian lives.

Another alleged danger is that tilapia contains low amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, as well as higher amounts of omega 6. The first part is wrong. Tilapia has the same omega-3 levels as lobster and tuna and is a good source of this essential fat. It is high in omega 6, which only means it should probably be avoided by those with inflammation problems. But the fish is not inherently unhealthy for everyone. It is low calorie and packed with protein, potassium, and B12.

There is one legitimate concern about how they are raised. Small farmers in China often feed the fish manure, which may contain salmonella and makes the fish more likely to spread foodborne disease. This is a reason to avoid tilapia raised in Chinese farms, but it does not justify eliminating all such fish from the diet, nor does it vindicate the fearmongering.

Just as avoiding tilapia is an overly broad suggestion, so too is the idea that certain foods should be ingested by all in great quantities. There are also lists of foods every person should avoid in every instance. Depending on a person’s condition, some foods may legitimately be encouraged, discouraged, or eliminated. But there are no superfoods or super bad foods, as indicated by avocados showing up on both types of lists. Similarly, tips that fail to consider differences among people are problematic. The most prominent example is encouraging all persons to avoid gluten, when this really only applies to those with celiac.

Some foods are more nutritious than others, of course, but there are no superfoods. Healthy eating requires a balanced diet that includes all the vitamins, along with fiber, potassium, calcium, and protein. Egg whites are low-calorie and packed with high-quality protein, but they have no fiber or vitamin C. Loading up on egg whites and six similar “superfoods” would leave one consuming an unbalanced diet.

While traditional foods appear on these lists, the ones that generate the most excited squeals among anti-GMO, gluten-free, organic types are the ones the readers haven’t heard of before. Fruits and vegetables that are exotic (i.e. obscure) periodically pop up and are touted as the latest, greatest undiscovered superfood that will cleanse the body, neutralize toxins, strengthen immunity, slow aging, prevent Alzheimer’s, shine your skin, mow your lawn, and change your oil.

Examples are açaí, baobab, maqui, and goji. Extra points seem to be given for foods ending in ‘i.’ There also exists major love for wheat germ, blackstrap molasses, cider vinegar, and wheat grass. Standard fare such as milk, blueberries, mushrooms, and salmon also make some of the lists. These are healthy foods with strong nutritional value, but no food contains everything a person needs, and superfood is an undefined term. There are various superfood lists, and it’s telling how little overlap there is. Getting people to accept a food as super is just marketing, which is nothing new. Bananas are associated with potassium, but orange juice has more. Those squeezed oranges, meanwhile, are synonymous with Vitamin C, but red bell peppers have nearly twice the amount.

A varied diet with an emphasis on grains and plants will likely provide all the needed nutrients. There is no need to consult the dozens of superfood lists floating around out there. Besides, none of those lists contain doughnuts.

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