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.
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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?
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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.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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