Superfoods are (typically) plant-based, nutrient-dense foods that contain antioxidants, healthy fats, fibre and a slew of other vitamins and minerals. The superfoods list is pretty expansive and ranges from blueberries and salmon to Greek yogurt, beans and whole grains. Basically they’re foods that max out on the nutritional benefits while minimizing overall caloric intake. So what’s the problem? Well as it turns out, there’s a pretty dark side to some of these superfoods and they can come with all kinds of surprising ethical, economic and cultural side effects. This is particularly noteworthy when superfoods become trendy (avocado toast anyone?), resulting in a large supply and demand. Let’s take a look.
Kale chips and salad may have decreased in popularity over the past few years, but the leafy green continues to top many superfood lists. If you continue to add it to your plate, then where you get it matters. A large amount of kale is grown on the United States’ West Coast and shipped to Canada via truck, which has a pretty significant environmental impact. Ecologists at Cornell University estimate that to grow, wash, package, transport and keep one pound of the greens chilled for that journey requires 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy. That packs a pretty big environmental impact.
What you can do: Pay attention to where your greens come from and try to buy local. Kale is one of the easiest vegetables to grow during a Canadian summer, so you could also consider planting your own and eating it in season.
Avocado toast, guacamole, sushi… there are so many delicious ways to enjoy this creamy green fruit, which is often referred to as nature’s mayonnaise. It’s no wonder that avocados have become a staple at produce sections across the country. At first, the farmers in Michoacán, Mexico — one of the only places on Earth where avocados can grow year-round — were fans of the growing trend. But then the cartels caught on, who have been extorting the farmers — as well as the sellers of fertilizer and pesticides — ever since. Some farmers who have been unwilling to cooperate have allegedly been attacked or killed.
What you can do: You can do your best to buy avocados that operate outside cartel influence. Alternatively, you can pay attention to the California growing schedule and buy avocados when they’re in season — typically from spring to summer.
Quinoa is high in protein and quite filling, which has made this grain a staple in vegetarian and vegan plates for years now. Unfortunately, quinoa’s growing popularity has spelled disaster for many farmers in South America where it hails — typically in Peru and Bolivia. There, farmers used to cycle their crops with the help of llamas and other animals. But in order to meet growing demand they have sold off their livestock and invested in farming equipment instead, which has resulted in decreased soil fertility. Also, as demand for quinoa grew worldwide, it tripled in price and became too expensive for the locals who have long relied on it as their main source of food. The situation has improved in recent years as countries like Australia, the United States and Canada have found ways to grow it locally.
What you can do: There is ongoing debate as to whether it is better: to buy local and help keep food costs down or to buy from the Andes and invest in the farmers there whose livelihoods depend on production. While there are points for each side, the main consensus seems to be that if you are going to indulge in a bowl of quinoa, ensure that it is certified fair trade.
Health experts still seem to be divided as to whether coconuts (including coconut oil, milk and water) is actually a superfood or a hidden source of fat. If you do incorporate coconuts into your diet though, you should consider how they’re sourced. There are many countries that train and use young pig-tailed macaque monkeys to pick coconuts for production, since the animals are able to harvest up to 1,600 coconuts daily — way more than humans ever could. As a result there have been many allegations of animal mistreatment and abuse in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
What you can do: Make sure to educate yourself on where your coconuts are coming from. PETA has a handy list of offenders, as well as companies that have severed ties with producers that use monkeys for their harvest.
Chocolate as a superfood? Um, yes please. Who doesn’t love knowing that a sweet treat could actually be good for them? Cacao — AKA the raw, unrefined pods that grow on cacao trees — is loaded with antioxidants, is the highest plant-based source of iron and is even a natural mood elevator. However, our love for all things chocolate (sweetened or otherwise) has led to some serious deforestation problems in countries like the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana, where producers are clearing forests to make room for new crops. Poverty for underpaid farmers is also an issue and they often turn to child labour or slavery as a result.
What you can do: Read the labels and do your research. Major chocolate brands have taken positive steps in the past few years to source ethical cacao. But in order to really ensure that you’re choosing with your heart, see if the company in question publishes an impact report on its website or if it uses third parties to certify any “ethical” trademarks. You can also advocate for change and take several other steps as outlined in this report.
Loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, salmon has long been linked to benefits like improved brain function and better neurological health. However there have been many reported problems over the years of unethically farmed fish being loaded up with potential chemicals, putting the “superfood” part of the fish in question. And as for the fresh stuff? Overfished waters are also a serious problem worldwide .
What you can do: Although some guidelines can be tricky to follow, try and stick to sustainably sourced salmon (and other fish and seafood) wherever possible in order to protect the species as a whole. And if you are consuming the farmed variety, the government of Canada recommends sticking to locally raised stocks from the Southern Coasts.
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