7 Trendy Superfoods That Aren't So Good For You or the Planet
As anyone who has ever stepped inside a Whole Foods can attest, “sustainability” and “health” are carefully crafted to be marketable, palatable and ultimately profitable. Chugging coconut water and kombucha is healthy because, well, it says so on the bottle. But a closer look at trendy health food products shows they are not quite as close to perfection as their marketing suggests.
What people put in their mouths is their own business, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to eat. That said: when we stock up on “superfoods,” we may be telling the world that our commitment to maintaining healthy antioxidant levels makes us hip and healthy, but our shopping habits may be fueled by misconceptions of the health benefits of these foods as well as ignorance of their environmental and social impact.
Here are some trendy health foods that have questionable effects on your body and the world.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
People all over the world have been drinking coconut water since long before American health food stores discovered the naturally hydrating, miracle drink and started marketing it as an “all-natural Gatorade” and post-yoga beverage. At one time, leading brand VitaCoco’s claim that coconut water had 15 times the electrolytes of a sports drink was one of the selling points that helped fuel a $500 million industry, according to Mother Jones. A 2011 class-action lawsuit forced the popular brand to rewrite some of its overblown claims.
The industry is also environmentally irresponsible. Much of the coconut water consumed in the U.S. comes from Indonesia and the Philippines, and shipping this drink around the world, releasing carbon emissions in the process, isn’t a sustainable environmental practice. Neither are some coconut farms’ labor practices. Back in 2012, Time reported that coconut farmers are at the bottom of the coconut water supply chain. Coconut farmers reportedly receive only a small portion of the product’s revenues: “Most growers across Asia sell to middlemen, who then resell the coconuts to factories for as much as 50 percent more ... the increasing demand for coconut water and oil has yet to translate into higher coconut prices due ... to the fact that the young industry is still dominated by a few large companies.”
2. Almond Milk
Nutritionally speaking, almonds are nearly a perfect food. According to David Jenkins, professor and research chair of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto, almonds carry “idyllic” levels of monounsaturated fats and cardiac benefits due to the nuts’ high concentration of vitamin E, fiber and antioxidant phytochemicals. California’s multi-billion-dollar almond industry is doing quite well. But the demand for almonds, particularly in the form of almond milk, presents several economic and ecological problems.
It takes over a gallon of water to produce a single almond, and California, the nation’s leading almond producer, is in the midst of its worst drought in recent history. The water-intensive nature of farming almonds and producing almond milk endangers king salmon habitats in northern California’s Klamath River, as NPR’s Alastair Bland reported. According to Bland, if more water is not released into the river soon, the salmon face the danger of gill rot. Unfortunately for the salmon, California doesn’t have water to spare. Almond milk is often used as a substitute for dairy, and it's not like the dairy industry is a paragon of environmental purity. It seems opting out of milk and milk-like products may be the healthiest option for the Earth.
Quinoa's increased popularity in the U.S. hurts indigenous Andean cultures in quinoa-producing countries like Peru and Bolivia. Called a “miracle grain of the Andes," quinoa became the complete protein of choice for vegans and many others, “a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider's larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn't feel pain),” as the Guardian’s Joanna Blythman writes. Consequently, the price of quinoa in Andean countries has gone up, and poorer people who have traditionally depended on the grain as a staple food can no longer afford it. “The quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of ... well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there. It's beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country's food security,” Blythman concludes.
4. Goji Berries
Tom Philpott of Mother Jones explains, “Goji berries ... are indeed loaded with phytochemicals, plant compounds that seem to protect us from heart disease, brain deterioration and cancer ... Other boasts are, well, less true: Açaí and goji berries are not really miracle cures for everything from obesity to sexual dysfunction.” Also, Goji berries are primarily grown on industrial plots in China, despite being labeled a “Himalayan superfruit.” Is anything a regular fruit anymore?
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Despite being touted as the leafy green cure-all, excessive kale consumption may present health problems. According to Oregon State University’s Micronutrient Information site, kale has been shown to cause or aggravate symptoms of hypothyroidism: “Very high intakes of cruciferous vegetables … have been found to cause hypothyroidism (insufficient thyroid hormone) ... Two mechanisms have been identified to explain this effect. The hydrolysis of some glucosinolates found in cruciferous vegetables (e.g. progoitrin) may yield a compound known as goitrin, which has been found to interfere with thyroid hormone synthesis.”
For those who aren’t at risk of developing a thyroid issue, kale does have many nutritional benefits including high amounts of fiber, calcium, vitamin C and cancer-preventing antioxidants.
A juice cleanse is probably one of the most misguided, nutritionally unsound and uncomfortable health fads a person could ever subject herself to. In theory, the purpose of undergoing a juice cleanse is to boost the immune system, fight degenerative diseases and “cleanse” the body by denying it food. No longer weighed down by food, juice-cleansers are supposed to feel restored mental clarity and energy. However, “detox” may also include a laundry list of unpleasant symptoms like fatigue, headaches, nausea, strangely colored bowel movements and dry mouth, among others.
Possibly the most dangerous and unfounded theory behind juice cleansing is the idea that the body needs cleansing at all, suggesting that bodies can be “clean” or “dirty.” According to biologists Steven Swoap and Daniel Lynch of Williams College, as told to Elizabeth Preston of Inkfish, the body “does its own cleansing via your kidneys and liver. The wastes and unwanted materials those organs filter out leave you via the toilet ... Depriving yourself of calories doesn't make the process go any faster.”
At around $60-$90 per day, juice cleanses don’t come with any proven health benefits and probably aren’t anything more than an expensive way to starve yourself. And if weight loss is the goal, a juice cleanse won’t help with that either: fasting slows the metabolism, making it even more difficult to lose weight.
Contrary to what clay-eating celebrities like Shailene Woodley might believe about the supposed body-cleansing benefits of clay, ingesting clay is extremely unsafe. Earlier this year, actress Woodley explained her clay-based “detox diet” to David Letterman: "Clay binds to other materials in your body and helps your body excrete those materials that aren't necessarily the best for you.”
Woodley further elaborated on Into The Gloss: "My friend started eating it and the next day she called me and said: 'Dude, my shit smells like metal!' She was really worried, but we did some research together and everything said that when you first start eating clay your bowel movements, pees and even you, yourself, will smell like metal."
Paul Mackey, creator of the “living clay” product Woodley was referring to, claims "the benefits of clay's 'full-body detoxification' are nothing short of amazing. It builds one's immune system, balances PH levels and allows the body to naturally heal itself and fight off future disease." Members of the medical community aren’t convinced. In a conversation with the Huffington Post, Dr. David L. Katz said that "removing metal from the body is not necessarily good—iron, for example, is a metal and essential to health. So there could conceivably be benefits, but there could certainly be harms."
Eating clay could cause bowel obstruction, death, and other health problems associated with eating dirt, or anything that is not fit for human consumption. Clay is not a food.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.