The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) survey finds 48% of the population view these so-called "superfoods" as part of a healthy diet with only 8% linking health risks with their consumption.
“Superfood products are often not sufficiently investigated to be able to evaluate them from a health perspective," says BfR President Professor Dr Andreas Hensel.
"A balanced and varied diet remains the best basis for staying healthy. This can be supported by the consumption of imported superfoods just as by the consumption of local fruits and vegetables."
What’s a superfood?
Further findings from the BfR Consumer Monitor, a representative population survey conducted annually since 2014, reveals that 70% of the 1000 people surveyed considered chia seeds to be a superfood.
Other foods considered to have extraordinary properties include goji berries (65%), quinoa (57%), linseed (53%), blackcurrants (42%) and oats (41%).
The survey thinks that compared to local foods, the majority tend to label imported foods, such as chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa, as superfoods.
Yet, local foods often provide comparable health benefits. For example, blackcurrants present an alternative to goji berries due to their high content of vitamin C just as linseed, with its high content of proteins and omega-3 fatty acids, shares similarities with the nutritional profile of chia seeds.
Further findings from the survey reveals the main benefits of consuming these superfoods include their content of vitamins (19%), a generally positive effect on the body (15%) and a strengthening of the immune system (11%).
One third of respondents have superfoods on their menu at least once a week. However, almost 40% state that they do not consume any superfoods at all.
Lack of standards
The Institute warned that some superfood products, such as certain food supplements, consist of extracts or preparations of plant-based superfoods, which may contain potentially harmful substances in concentrated form.
“The lack of standards in extraction procedures or partly insufficient data from studies can make the health risk assessment of these products difficult. For this reason, they cannot be compared to the plant-based superfoods from which they are derived,” the BfR states.
This is reflected in the survey, which when asked, “Which health risks do you see in foods also referred to as superfood?” 13% answered “Questionable ingredients,” in response.
Only two out of five respondents consider the health benefits of superfoods to be scientifically proven.
The same finding also assumes that superfood products are tested for health safety before they are available in Germany.
Novel Food Regulation
The BfR comments that while health benefits take centre stage, superfoods can also pose health risks. These include certain ingredients and contaminants that can be harmful to health if consumed excessively.
Specific superfood products are often insufficiently researched to allow for a conclusive health risk assessment.
However, foods that are new to the European market are subject to the “Novel Food Regulation” and go through strict testing and approval procedures.
For example, in 2009 the addition of chia seeds to bread products was permitted up to a maximum content of 5%.