Fact or fiction on popular superfoods

IF you’re looking for an example of a modern food miracle, look no further than coconut oil. 

Fact or fiction on popular superfoods

It has to be the ‘superfood’ of the decade. You can cook with it, use it as a hair conditioner, apply it to chapped lips, and, of course, eat it.

The health benefits it bestows on us mere mortals seem to grow daily. It reportedly balances blood sugars, boosts energy, bolsters the immune system, and now there’s a study suggesting it provides short-term help to Alzheimer’s patients.

But can you believe what you read about coconut oil, or indeed the barrage of so-called superfoods that are popping up on our shelves weekly?

Even Wikipedia advises caution. It defines ‘superfood’ as a marketing term. Other experts, from dieticians to Cancer Research UK, have warned that there is little scientific basis for many of these wonder foods.

We asked Sarah Keogh, spokeswoman at the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, to sort fact from fiction on some of the more popular health trends.

Coconut oil

There is seemingly nothing it can’t do. Its role as a healthy cooking oil is the least of it. It has been used as a hair tonic, skin moisturiser, even a nappy-rash cream. Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan and uses it as a mouthwash to stave off tooth decay and bleeding gums.

The health claims: It balances blood sugars, boosts energy, bolsters the immune system and may help Alzheimer’s patients.

The expert’s view: “Coconut oil is a saturated fat that is portrayed as very healthy, but there is limited scientific evidence to support a lot of the nutrition claims. Claims that it prevents Alzheimer’s are overstated.

"There is no strong evidence for this — more studies are needed. Reports that it doesn’t raise cholesterol are not backed by science, either, though there is a big difference between extra virgin coconut oil and hydrogenated coconut oil.”


The spice that gives curry its warm yellow colour has been used in India for thousands of years as a medicinal herb. In recent years, science has shown that turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory and a strong antioxidant.

These days, there is no shortage of self-confessed health experts advising you to sprinkle it on food, toss it on fresh veg, mix it in smoothies, or blend it into a tea.

The health claims: It has anti-ageing properties, boosts brain power, acts as an anti-inflammatory, and reduces bloating.

The expert’s view: “Traditionally it was used as an antiseptic. Turmeric is antioxidant-rich and the curcumin in it may be important in helping to prevent cancer.”

Matcha green tea

This has a long-standing tradition in Japan and you’re likely to hear a lot more about it a lot this year. It’s 15 times stronger than coffee, so packs a punch. Matcha latte, anyone? Like other green teas, it’s high in antioxidants and L-theanine, a compound said to bolster energy.

The health claims: It promotes calm, increases energy, and improves cholesterol and physical endurance. It is also said to be a powerful detox agent. All you have to do is put a teabag in a mug and add boiling water. Or buy it as a capsule or in powder form.

The expert’s view: “This is a concentrated green tea so it has higher levels of antioxidants, but also caffeine. It is said to help people relax — the L-theanine may have a role in relaxation.”


Make sure to have some activated charcoal in your back pocket if you think you’re going to be bitten by a deadly snake or spider. It will slow down the absorption of the poison. It has been used in emergency situations for years but is now touted as a helpful detox agent that reduces bloating.

The health claims: A powerful detox agent that aids digestion. Curiously, it is also said to whiten teeth.

The expert’s view: “Charcoal has been used to bind poisons in the stomach, usually in emergency situations. There is not much evidence for beneficial effects further down the gut. Beware of detox claims with any product. The body needs a wide variety of foods and nutrients to detox; focusing on just one thing isn’t useful.”


This vile-tasting, protein-rich green algae has quite a celeb following, including Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Miranda Kerr, and Victoria Beckham. It is native to Taiwan and Japan and comes in powder or capsule form.

The health claims: It aids digestion, lowers blood pressure, and is said to help fight heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The expert’s view: “There is limited scientific evidence for the claims around disease. Some studies show some benefits, while some show no benefit at all, especially with regards to immunity. It might be high in protein, but you would need to eat a lot to get enough protein.”

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