During any great food trend it can be hard not to go overboard when first discovering something new. I certainly love trying new foods and wouldn’t mind having a few cups of almond milk matcha a day. But it’s vital to consider more than just how nutritious and delicious something is. Looking at five different “superfoods” and how they are produced can tell a lot about the reality of benefits from these foods.

1) Quinoa

Image: Flickr: Biodiversity International

Quinoa is one of the quintessential “superfoods”. Originally grown by the Incans, it’s a grain that packs a lot of nutrients. It is grown primarily in the Andes region of Bolivia and Ecuador. Today, quinoa is a life line and staple crop for farmers in both countries.

The good news is that it has allowed many bolivians to expand their diets. Greater income from growing quinoa allows more purchasing power. Quinoa allows small scale farming families access to credit because of increased incomes. The downside is that it is environmentally a disaster when overplanted. Producing too much quinoa can cause land degradation and soil erosion, when soil breaks down and becomes less nutritious.

My verdict: Good when consumed in moderation, and crop diversification could help farmers with food security here.

2) Açaí

Image: Flickr: CIFOR

Açaí is a small purple berry that contains lots of antioxidants, making it another superfood. It is grown mostly in the Amazon River Basin in Brazil and Trinidad. It grows from the açaí palm tree.

The fruit is not the only part that is used. The açaí palm is also harvested for other commercial uses such as wood for construction. Homes, weaved hats and baskets and other products can be made from the tree.

The good part of açaí is that the whole tree and product is often used. And growing açaí berries is pretty sustainable. Most of the fruit from açaí palms are grown naturally in Amazon areas, only 7 percent is actually planted. However, it is dangerous for those harvesting berries. People harvesting the berries have to climb up the trees and chop off fruit with machetes.

My verdict: Sustainable but can be dangerous to harvest. (Machetes are sharp!)

3) Coconut

Image: Flickr: Jill Mitchell

Cook with coconut milk, put coconut oil in your hair, drink coconut water. These are all trending ways to use coconut right now.

But where do the coconuts used in these products come from? Indonesia, the Philippines, and India are the top coconut producing countries in the world- combined they produce around 50 million coconuts a year.

These countries also struggle with poverty. Coconut farmers are no exception-sixty percent of coconut farmers in the Philippines live in poverty. Even while growing economies like China and the US are big consumers of coconut, and imports are increasing in Europe too. Asking for fair-trade coconuts is one step in helping get coconut farmers out of extreme poverty.

My verdict: More fair-trade production!

4) Matcha

Image: Flickr: syntheticpanda

While matcha has been around for more than a thousand years, it has recently become a craze in New York. I see matcha tea everywhere, and matcha macarons, cakes, ice cream, even matcha guacamole..

What is it? Making matcha is quite a process. It’s made from ground leaves of Camellia sinensis  (aka green tea) which grows in subtropical and tropical regions around the world.

One thing that consumers of matcha should be careful with is knowing where the matcha comes from. I believe this is true with any product but here it is especially important because if green tea leaves are grown in contaminated soil they can contain pollutants from the soil. For example, matcha made from green tea leaves grown in soil with lead contamination can have 30 times more lead than a non contaminated cup of green tea.

My verdict: Try to purchase organic, know where your product comes from (keeping an eye out for nation’s with a high portion of contaminated farmland), and seriously don’t drink 10 cups a day.

5) Almond milk

Image: Flickr: Steve Corey

California produces an estimated 80 percent of the world’s almonds. Almonds as a snack and increased consumption of almond milk is big. The market for almonds in California has increased from a net worth of $1.2 billion USD in 2002 to a $4.8 billion in 2012.

The growth in the almond industry has become more complicated with the severity of the drought in California. Almond farmers in California argue that almonds don’t grow as well anywhere else. But even with the perfect weather condition for almond growth in California, the high amount of water needed to grow almonds makes it difficult to continue production in when there are dwindling water resources for the region.

My verdict: Almonds should feel like you are splurging, they are costing California and farmers a lot. Maybe slow down on the almond milk.

Hint: There are other options (hemp, rice, soy, coconut) oh yeah and that stuff that comes from cows..try alternating.

Knowledge on where your food comes from, who is growing it (if it is not you) and the impact that it has on the environment are key parts of a balanced healthy diet. These practices can help make sure these food are able to be enjoyed for years to come. So don’t forget to mix it up. Don’t get stuck in a rut when it comes to cooking and eating. Food diversity has a lot more benefits than you would think. All of these foods should be treated like the unique “superfoods” they are and should be purchased and consumed in moderation.

The growth in these foods are increasing food security for some farmers, make sure that progress is expanded across the world by signing the petition to support food security in TAKE ACTION NOW.


Defeat Poverty

What your 5 favorite "superfoods" really do

By Meghan Werft