Kale is the ‘‘superfood’’ du jour though there are plenty of others vying for your cash and they form an exotic shopping list: chia seeds, maca, cacao, quinoa, acai and goji berries. Promoted as calorie sparse and nutrient dense, most of these foods hail from far-flung locales but Australian producers are edging their way into the lucrative market.
Parker first planted kale in 2004 at the urging of his health-conscious wife and at the same time he noticed that it was being sold at the Sydney organic markets he visited each week. He ended up getting bunches for Organic Feast but they ‘‘struggled to sell 10 bunches back then’’. How times have changed. When kale recently appeared among the rows of glossy silver beet and array of lettuce at my local supermarket in Mayfield, I realised its renaissance had come full circle.
I blame Gwyneth Paltrow for the hype. In 2010 while promoting the blockbuster, Iron Man 2, the actor attributed her lean physique to her trainer Tracey Anderson and a strict diet consisting of, well, mainly kale juice. (For the record, kale juice tastes and smells like freshly-mown grass.) Since then she has published the health-conscious cookbook, It’s All Good, featuring a number of recipes using kale. Kale chips, anyone?
I also blame Miranda Kerr. For the past four years she has been raving about goji berries, which are grown mainly in China and eaten as a snack or used in smoothies and atop cereal or yoghurt in the same way raspberries or blueberries are.
Other celebrities have also jumped on the superfood bandwagon, including Sarah Wilson, Rachael Finch, and Jennifer Hawkins, who all use social media to show off their pious diets that more often than not eliminate dairy, wheat, gluten and sugar. Green shakes are a popular fixture and include ingredients such as spirulina, kale, avocado, cucumber and lemon. Chia seeds are turning up in muffins, smoothies and snack bars. Quinoa has invaded cafe menus – especially in the big cities – as forcefully as focaccia once did.
I can’t think of the last time a friend posted a photo on instagram of a hamburger or greasy hot chips. They are more likely to show off a bowl of home-made gluten-free muesli or protein balls consisting of almonds, dates, chia seeds and cacao powder. In contrast to our rising obesity rate, there is a burgeoning – some would say booming – industry feeding off the desire to be super healthy.
‘‘It’s a bit like wearing a badge; there’s definitely fashion in food,’’ says Clare Collins, professor in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle. ‘‘In some ways it’s a social trend but also people are looking for a quick fix, an easy solution. Quinoa is high in protein and low in fat, but so are lentils, chick peas, kidney beans and baked beans, which are often grown locally and are cheaper.
‘‘Even if a goji berry is higher in vitamin c than an orange, if you eat oranges you’ll still get enough vitamin c. If you really want to increase your berry intake, frozen berries from your supermarket are just as good. We don’t need to import these foods when we have healthy foods in our backyard. Kale is trendy, but at least it’s grown here.’’
WHEN looking at what has fuelled the popularity of superfoods, whose benefits are often overstated by devotees and understated by dietitians, it is impossible to avoid the influence of the paleo diet. This diet, which is based on what our prehistoric, hunter-gatherer ancestors would have eaten, has gained an almost cult-like following. It is a simple regimen summed up by what you can eat: meat, seafood, vegetables, eggs, fruit and nuts. Hardline followers also exclude dairy, replacing it with coconut or almond milk. There’s no room for processed or starchy foods, which is quite radical in 2014 given their proliferation.
Mr Activated Almonds, aka chef and My Kitchen Rules co-host Pete Evans, is probably one of the most well-known converts. He has attributed his weight-loss and new-found energy and good health to the diet and has just published a cookbook, Healthy Every Day, which is based on paleo principles and includes recipes such as pan-fried whiting with pumpkin and kale salad, burger with the lot (minus the bread roll) and Sri Lankan beetroot and egg curry. He is overseas and couldn’t be reached by Weekender, but MKR contestant and fellow paleo devotee/cookbook author Luke Hines was happy to expound about the appeal of the diet (he and Evans are touring Australia in July with a presentation called The Paleo Way).
‘‘We [Hines and fitness trainer/co-cookbook author Scott Gooding] were on MKR around the same time that Pete was making the transition so it worked out really well,’’ says Hines. ‘‘Rather than us giving him the lead, it was more like we were learning from each other. Pete’s gone and done a nutrition course and has gotten very serious about what he eats. The thing with paleo is it’s not anything new, it’s not a fad, it’s how we ate – it’s just we haven’t been eating that way for a long time.
‘‘For me it was working out why I couldn’t meet certain physical and health goals and once I eliminated the foods that were dragging me down, I felt phenomenal.’’
Hines acknowledges that certain paleo ingredients have become trendy. ‘‘There is the risk that certain foods become a fad, but at the end of the day they’re getting spoken about because they’re genuinely good so there’s no discounting their health benefits. But rather than thinking that a weekend of a certain food will change you, think about incorporating it into your normal diet. Don’t go hard out and have kale in every meal for a week and think, this will fix me – you’ll be sick of it.
‘‘Pick a superfood wisely, understand why you need it, and see if it suits your lifestyle; if it does, incorporate it long term.’’
ADRIAN Sutter is a picture of good health. The 28-year-old managing director of Fit & Fresh, a Newcastle business that prepares and delivers meals to health-conscious clients, has no doubt the paleo diet is becoming ‘‘mainstream’’ (there’s even a new cafe in Hamilton that has a paleo-inspired menu). ‘‘Paleo is just a word, but it describes the food we’re supposed to be eating – no grains, sugars and or most carbs. People have heard it’s a fad, but from a medical perspective, this is the future.’’
The former soldier, who served in Afghanistan, joined forces with his younger brother Ben to open their health-centred cafe Raw in the city’s east end after their 28-year-old sister Katie died from ovarian cancer in 2011. Fit & Fresh followed last September.
Nutrition professor Clare Collins
‘‘I believe you can eat yourself healthy,’’ says Sutter. ‘‘Get sugar and grains out of your diet, and this will automatically have an impact.’’
He is wary of our fascination with superfoods, though. ‘‘If you’re smashing alcohol all weekend, a few goji berries on Monday isn’t going to fix you,’’ he grins. ‘‘Almond meal is another one of those ingredients; we use it instead of flour to make muffins, but just because it’s within the paleo diet, doesn’t mean you can eat four of them. You’ve still got to check the calorie content.
‘‘But if people who used to eat doughnuts are now eating goji berries, that’s fantastic.
‘‘There’s a scale we need to look at; there’s people at one end who are eating absolute junk and with education, getting them to swap some of the junk food for fresh food would be fantastic. Then, at the other end, there’s those who are educated about diet and want to be optimally healthy; we need to let them know that eating half a kilo of goji berries a day isn’t healthy either.
‘‘We need to teach people about balancing what they eat.’’
It can all get very confusing and it’s little wonder many of us latch on to the Next Big Thing. As is demonstrated by kale’s increasing popularity, it seems everything old is new again. But do we really need to eat quinoa, which is grown mainly on the altiplano, a vast, windswept, and barren Andean plateau spanning parts of Peru and Bolivia, to be healthy?
‘‘If you really want to improve your eating habits, record what you eat in a week and see where the kilojoules are coming from,’’ says Clare Collins. ‘‘If you’re on the paleo diet and you plan to be one of the people who lives into their 80s, my suggestion is to move to super premium health insurance for your osteoporostic fractures and the high-dependent carers you’ll need. Eliminating dairy from your diet is not the way to go. The reality is you don’t need to go paleo but you could include more fruit and veg in your diet. And you can certainly lay off the heavily processed carbs and that will put the odds in your favour in terms of being healthier into your 80s.’’