Superfoods – is healthy eating just hype? | DW Documentary

 Superfoods – is healthy eating just hype? | DW Documentary


They’re hip and healthy, and more than just a passing trend: superfoods. For me, superfood means what does you good, because superfoods are super for my body. Quinoa, goji berries, and chia seeds: just three of the countless superfoods in big demand due to their nutritional credentials.

The points is what a person needs. There's complete confusion on that issue. And now you see these products where we’re told: "You need this. If you eat this, you'll get well or you won't get sick." But it's not really true. How does superfood-hype impact on local people in countries where the products are actually grown? Does the continually increasing demand have the potential to even destroy entire ecosystems? We're on the road to disaster here if something doesn't change. And the region will turn into a desert.


The superfood craze started as is so often the case, in the US. And now, superfood restaurants are at home in cities around the world. They serve dishes with exotic ingredients such as avocado, chia and quinoa — which come with the promise of making you slim, healthy and happy.

The customers in this restaurant in Bochum, Germany, like it. It looks healthy. And you know you're doing something good for your body.

I like to eat a lot, but I like to eat healthy, too. This a perfect mix. There's lots of healthy stuff here, and it's good to have a change from cafeterias or other places in town. Florian Klar recognized a niche and opened his business about a year ago. He came up with the recipes himself. His aim is to offer a healthy alternative to fatty, fast food.

Another one of the reasons why we're here is because it's much easier to eat stuff that's bad for you than eat in a healthy way. We want to change that. And with the term "Superfood" you attract more customers than if you call yourself a "bistro for healthy food."

The food here is served in special bowls. Warm ingredients are combined with cold ones, most of them raw. The food is supposed to look tasty and have an exotic touch. The nice thing about a bowl like this is that there are lots of individual foods in it. A — that makes it nice and colorful, and B, it's good for your body, because each individual ingredient contains minerals and vitamins. That makes it a perfect meal. These are our kidney bean balls: Chickpeas... Here we have quinoa, an ancient Inca grain from South America. It’s a grain that is cooked with water and contains loads of healthy proteins. But are superfoods really all they’re cracked up to be? The protein content of quinoa, for example is comparable to everyday millets. Quinoa has more fiber. But millet has more than twice as much iron.

Florian Klar buys a lot of his ingredients at the Bochum wholesale market, which boasts local products AND foreign foods like sweet potatoes, too. As always: quality flesh inside. The freshness of the products is important to Florian when he’s shopping.

I need some herbs. You've come to the right place.

The mix is key to Florian's menu. He combines local fruits and veg with foods from faraway lands. Every fruit and vegetable has its own nutritional composition. That's why it's so nice to combine the local with the exotic, because many diverse nutrients, vitamins and minerals come together, and they form a very complex meal. And that’s great for the body. But healthy doesn't necessarily mean sustainable. The superfoods served up in Germany come from countries thousands of kilometers away.


Quinoa is a good example. Among the major producers is Bolivia. The variety that sells best in Germany, quinoa real, is harvested on salt flats. The indigenous peoples of the South American Andes highlands were already farming quinoa six thousand years ago. The nutrient-rich grain has always been a staple food here.

Joachim Milz is a sustainable-farming consultant. For years, he's been watching how quinoa cultivation has developed in the region. On these relatively saline and poor soils with little rainfall, we find a crop that can deliver fantastic yields. And with the llamas it's an ingenious or ideal form of production, and is good for the region’s economy. But that's changing. Shrubs used to provide food for the llamas and protect the soil from erosion. After the harvest, the animals came to graze. Llama dung provided fresh nutrients. Since the quinoa boom started, farmers have been pushing for maximum yields — while the scrubland has been cleared. I was shocked by the fact that 150 to 200 thousand hectares of llama grazing land has been ploughed up for quinoa. There are now quinoa fields as far as the eye can see. Rising demand has led to massive expansion in the plant’s cultivation. Clearing the fields has left the soil without the vegetation that had protected it from wind erosion. When you walk along here, you only see annual weeds growing now. The soil is completely unprotected. Ultimately, what they're doing is promoting the development of a highland desert.

Farmers won't have the conditions they need to produce here, so people will have to go elsewhere. That change is already making itself felt. With crop yields declining, some farmers have already given up and gone to the cities to make a living as unskilled laborers. And Bolivia is just one place where superfood monoculture has left the land scarred.

The problem we see here with quinoa is basically going on everywhere around the world. Take the avocado for example. As a superfood, it’s grown as a monoculture on large farms. Once profits become the priority, short-term economic interests override everything else. And hardly anyone really thinks about what will become of these ecosystems — where people also live. Massive demand for avocados has led to problems in countries that grow the fruit, just as it has with quinoa here in Bolivia. Within a decade, the area of land used to grow avocados increased by 30 percent — with 15 hundred liters of water now needed per kilo. Vegetables in Germany such as lettuce or tomatoes require far less. Enormous single-crop farms, especially in dry regions, only ensure short-term high yields.

Raising quinoa the traditional way is based on a different principle — using less land, but yielding better quality.

Jobia Calani farms a small plot of land. It takes her two weeks to harvest the field by hand. Since tractors are now used to grow quinoa more easily everywhere in the flatlands, there are few people left who want to toil away on hill farms. Yet this is the cradle of quinoa cultivation. This is the way our ancestors worked the fields back then. Our grandparents taught our parents, and our parents taught us. We have to plow this up every year. Are these Quinoa roots? Yes, exactly, the old roots. And you leave these twigs here? We rake them, using tools like this. That's our way of working the soil. It's a traditional system that's been practiced for centuries. Even here there's room for improvement in terms of sustainability, but compared to the mechanized farming down in the lowland plains, this is more environmentally-friendly. The soil has time to regenerate between the two harvests here on the hillsides.

The plants are large, the individual kernels: plump. See this plant here, it's yielding really well. Look at the seed heads, the kernels are nice and ripe. By our standards, these are the best grains. We store them and use them as seeds.

Joachim Milz has brought along some quinoa from a German supermarket. He wants to show the farmers how the grain they grow here is sold and consumed in Europe. So how do you feel about Germany and Europe suddenly discovering quinoa as a superfood?

Our product didn’t used to be well-known. Word hadn't got around yet about how much protein it has. It used to cost less than rice and pasta. They said quinoa wasn't worth that much. As farmers, we're a little proud that quinoa is now known all over the world.

The farmers compare the quinoa from the German supermarket with what they've just harvested from their own field. The box says "Class 1." But even our Class 2 is bigger than this. I'd say it's Class 3. And these little ones here, they're nothing. That's chicken-feed!

Jobia is done with this field for today. Further up the hillside she has another plot of ripe quinoa that needs harvesting.

The superfood boom

When the superfood boom started in 2014, the price for quinoa went through the roof. Back then, even small villages like Cierro Grande profited from this trend. It’s home to just seven families. They were able to buy new equipment — such as a small grain-sorting machine. That made work easier. But in 2015, just a year later, the market price collapsed again.

How much would you have to earn from quinoa grown on the hillside for it to pay off? They’d have to pay us a lot more for our production costs to be covered. Plus: we need to feed our families.

The development of the price for quinoa in Bolivia looks like a roller coaster ride. In 2014 it peaked at just over three thousand dollars a ton, but only three years later, it plummeted to a lower value than before the boom began. The expansion of quinoa farming on the plains also led to major fluctuations in its price. And the hill farmers suffer because they can't compete and don't get paid more despite the additional effort involved in working on the hillsides. The farming is sustainable, with high-quality yields. But this way of working the land is at risk of dying out.

European consumers are relatively unaware of the farmers' problems — while the superfoods selection in their supermarkets keeps on growing. Between 2014 and 2016 the turnover generated by superfoods in Germany rose from 1.4 million to 42.6 million euros. The bestseller is chia, which accounts for 62 percent of sales. But what's best to buy from such a large selection? Consumer are completely confused. So they're vulnerable to advertising based on faith. It's like religion. I show up promising a miracle, and people in need of orientation are ready to believe it. That's the concept behind superfoods.

Doctor and nutrition specialist Matthias Riedl inspects the superfoods on the shelves of a Hamburg supermarket. Ginger, dried berries, chia — customers find a wide variety of supposedly healthy products here. But the list of ingredients shows what's really inside. You could think this is the natural foods section. But here we have cranberries. You don't see it right away, but they have an extra 40% sugar — and sunflower oil, which isn’t the best oil. So this bag of cranberries has more sugar in it than a bar of chocolate. Almost 70 percent. So they're anything but healthy.

Chia seeds do contain the very-best nutrients. But they're usually consumed in very small quantities. Superfoods are just a diversion from the real problem. The German diet isn't healthy enough. And adding 15 grams of chia seeds daily won't change it. But that's exactly what happens. Chia seeds are something of an alibi food to make up for an otherwise unhealthy diet. 15 grams provide even less omega three fatty acids than, for example, a generous portion of walnuts. Flaxseed could be another alternative to chia. It has more protein and about the same proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Although when it comes to calcium, flaxseed can't compete.

Big industry is eager to join the superfood trend. Even long-time staples such as ready-to-serve cereals are now being supplemented with exotic grains and berries. Here are two examples of what's going wrong.

They've got far too much sugar and just a smidgeon of cranberry to let the consumer know: "Look, it's got fruit in it!" But the percentage of cranberries is well below five percent — negligible. The key here is the high level of sugar. It's unhealthy and neutralizes anything beneficial that the dried cranberries contribute. Lingon berries are an alternative to cranberries that grow in Europe, for example. The sugar content in raw cranberries is lower. But due to their relatively sour taste, far more sugar is added to the dried version.

The term "superfood" isn't a registered trademark, but does suggest a positive effect on consumer health. But that's not always the case. Here's a nice example. One hundred percent natural doesn't mean 100 percent healthy. This small portion for two euros gives you 47 grams of sugar per 100 grams of product. So eating this little bag-full means nearly 25 grams of sugar. That's the World Health Organization's maximum daily intake recommendation, so that's pretty much it for the day.

The nutrition expert advises people in Germany to eat local fruit and vegetables, even if they're less trendy. Our produce has an image problem, and we need to inform people about how good these fruit colors are for us and the benefits of our local products. Allioids have a natural anti-inflammatory effect, whether it's chives, garlic or leek.


There are local alternatives in Germany for many overseas foods — and they don't have to be shipped thousands of kilometers to get to supermarket shelves. And they're a sound choice on the nutrients front. The goji berry has seven times more calories than the humble black currant, primarily because of the former’s high sugar content. And when it comes to vitamin C the black currant easily outstrips the goji.

Some so-called superfoods come from countries where farming regulations are not as strict as in Germany. Sample measurements have shown that some may contain pesticides and heavy metals. This lab in Bremen specializes in detecting hazardous substances in food and other products, and has tested the likes of goji berries. During pesticide screening we check for the presence of about two hundred different pesticides. These include insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. We also screen for four heavy metals: lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. We've primarily found insecticides in higher concentrations. And not just in goji berries. Samples from other institutes have indicated the presence of pesticides and mineral oil in raw cocoa, chia seeds and moringa powder.

The pesticide issue isn't a problem with quinoa. Many producers have organic certification. But that doesn’t make the farming sustainable. Tractors churn up the dry soil. And with demand growing, the land being farmed now stretches from the hills to the flatlands, with no end in sight. Joachim Milz is concerned that if things go on like this there won't be any quinoa growing here one day. The farmers are already telling him that the yields are shrinking from year to year. The conclusions that could be drawn from this aren't being made. People need to ask, above all: what can we actually do differently? Instead of saying: "Ok, stop ploughing all that up," the message should be: "How can we produce quinoa without destroying the whole region here?"

Joachim Milz is headed for the community of Rodeo, where they also grow quinoa in the flatlands using mechanized farming.

The quinoa boom revived this village. Many locals returned from the big cities, because they could make a living here again. Houses were rebuilt, and a modest level of affluence developed in the form of assets like tractors and other machines. And the villagers went back to fostering local customs — such as traditional dress, music and rituals. The big demand for quinoa has had a really positive effect on our community. Our standard of living and our quality of life have improved enormously. The way they grow quinoa in Rodeo needs to change fundamentally if they are to maintain that. The crop is farmed according to organic standards, but natural vegetation is still being largely cleared. That weakens soil quality. Have a look at this tola plant and the way its root system is formed. The roots are still firmly anchored in the soil, and go several meters down into the ground. This is one of the most important species to maintain fertility in this extremely dry region. It stops wind erosion and helps to keep water in the soil. If the decline in soil quality continues, soon it will no longer be worth the farmers’ effort.

Joachim Milz talks to the farmers about ways to ensure decent harvests in the long term.

The soil is beautifully fertile here. Because of these here. We must produce the quinoa with this. It's like fertilizer. And at the same time it's food for llamas, right? That's the best thing for the quinoa; we just have to take all these woody bits and sprinkle them on the field when we sow. We should try that. As such, we need to produce everything — biomass, fertilizer — on the piece of land itself. Then it’s sustainable. And at the same time we also have to reforest.

People are quite skeptical, but that's always the case with something new. But people are listening. A place like this makes me optimistic that something can be done.

In the small town of Salinas, preparations are underway for a market fair where the regional quinoa farmers will be able to present their wares. All the towns in the surrounding area are represented in this showcase of the food that is so vital for the region. Joachim Milz wants to speak to the exhibitors.

Many export their crops to Europe, and most produce according to organic standards. The agronomist is hoping that German consumers will soon not only want quinoa that is farmed organically, but sustainably as well. It would be good if this demand could be used to change farming practices. We have to make it clear that the organic requirements are not nearly enough to produce quinoa sustainably. Sustainability has to become a quinoa farming standard if the ecosystems in Bolivia's highlands are to remain intact — and offer their human and animal inhabitants a viable long-term future.

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