Food fraud fills stomachs but empties wallets

Did you know that in your average ‘superfood’ protein ball, protein is the least predominant macronutrient! Keep reading… it gets weirder.

Sensationalised ‘superfoods’ for whatever ails you, such as fermented drinks to give good gut bacteria and mood-changing protein balls, are expensive but no better than the tried-and-true five core food groups, says QUT dietitian Dr Helen Vidgen.

She said many packaged ‘designer’ foods made nutritional promises to help sell the product, but some went a step further and promised to change adults or children for the better, and often at an exorbitant price.

“These promises are often based on weak studies, experiments on a rat, or flimsy evidence of a vitamin’s ability to affect your emotions or behaviour,” Dr Vidgen said.

“Many of these products promise to benefit health but when you go back to the research they say supports them, it’s pretty weak and unfounded or the findings have been extrapolated in a way that’s not very relevant.

“New ‘superfoods’ come and go and often confuse the public about what healthy eating is.

“To prepare our nutrition students to answer their clients’ questions about new and future ‘superfoods’, we teach them to critique the research behind the promises; to think about how much they would need to eat to obtain the touted benefit and how it would fit into their lives; then come up with a recommendation.”

Dr Vidgen’s nutrition students investigated the marketing promises behind breastfeeding biscuits, kombucha, green powder, toddler milk, and protein balls.


Promise: The fermented drink benefits gut health by increasing the diversity of gastrointestinal flora which, in turn, improves overall wellbeing.

Finding: All documented effects of kombucha on wellbeing are from animal studies, for example, decreased blood sugar levels in mice and regulated cholesterol in ducks. These results have not been replicated in humans.

Evidence to show that kombucha increases the diversity of human gastrointestinal flora is also weak. The effects seem to be highly individualised and highly influenced by overall long-term food intake and other environmental stressors.

Recommendation: The best way to improve your gut health is to eat a wide variety of plant foods such as different kinds of legumes, wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and nuts.

Protein balls

Promise: Billed as nutritious, guilt-free snacks for people on the go, especially after exercise. Some promise mood- and productivity-boosting properties.

Findings: In a 40g protein ball, protein is the least predominant macronutrient with a range of 5.6g to 6.2g in two shop-bought varieties, with 8.7g and 9.5 g of fat and 12.4g to 14.5g of sugars. Both bought protein balls contained double the fat and sugar recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Although ingredients such as cashew nuts contain a compound that increases secretion of serotonin, it is not in large enough quantities to have any effect. No studies have looked at the relationship between cashews and their effect on anxiety, mood or stress. Furthermore, the protein balls contained such a small amount of cashews that no effect was likely on mood.

Recommendation: The product would fall into the occasional food category, as it is high in saturated fat, sugar and calories, and could lead to weight gain. Just eat the cashew nuts instead.

For information about the other components of the QUT study, click here.  

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