The Superfood Your Dietitian Probably Won’t Tell You to Eat

What is a Superfood?

Superfood
Definition of a Superfood

Nutrient density is defined as the nutrients divided by the calories in a food. The higher the number, the closer a food would be to being a superfood. I saw a table of these in this article which sets out reasons to become vegetarian. The table shows that raw leafy green vegetables are probably superfoods:

http://www.businessinsider.com/reasons-to-go-vegetarian-in-charts-2013-10
ANDI Nutrient Density of foods list purportedly from Dr Joel Fuhrman

I don’t disagree that kale and spinach are high in nutrients for their calories, but something was missing from this table. It was a class of food that I believed was very nutrient dense. Within that class there was one particular food that I thought would meet the definition of a ‘superfood’- but it was missing. Why was it missing? That question started a journey that I hope you will find as interesting as I do.

Superfoods (Eye Roll)

Like me, you probably roll your eyes at the ‘superfood’ term. Cynicism aside, it is a common term for foods regarded more highly than others for their nutrition. After a bit of media research, I found that none of these internet articles, which were the top hits in google for ‘superfood’ mentioned the missing food. I found that extraordinary when gram for gram it:

  • Has about three times the iron of red meat
  • Has about three times the protein and iron of black beans
  • Twice the vitamin A of carrots with far more bioavailability
  • Kills quinoa & whole grains for B vitamins, some of which are associated with a lower risk of cancer
  • Is a significant source of phosphorus, potassium, copper, selenium, and zinc
  • Has so much more….

What is this missing ‘superfood’ and why is it not listed with others? Well, the answer lies in the definition. You see if it is not considered very beneficial for health and well-being by ‘experts’, then it is not a superfood.

The Ignored Superfood?

So while some dietitians and nutritionists wax lyrical about goji & acai berries, kale, blueberries, quinoa, broccoli, salmon and (of course) whole grains, this ‘superfood’ it seems, is not regarded as healthy. They tell you to eat ‘this and that’ in endless articles to spruik their dietetic prowess. They, and a chorus of others on the Internet, give you scientific reasons to eat less or more of all sorts of things. We are told about: fibre, low-fat dairy, high-fat dairy, eat eggs, don’t eat eggs, eat fish but don’t eat animal meat, free-range, grass-fed, non-GMO, stress-free, wild, Patagonian, rare, exotic, antioxidant, phyto-, anti-aging ingredients, but hardly anyone seems to pay any attention to this ‘superfood’.

Right about now you probably think I am trying to get you to eat more of this food. Maybe I have a supplement to sell you? That is NOT what this post is about. I care what I eat because I have had success using diet to reverse my diabetes. While I have incorporated this ‘superfood’ more into my diet, you can eat whatever you want. Do this for whatever reason of belief or science- but please don’t get those reasons mixed up!

The Superfood not a Superfood

The superfood ‘in waiting’ is liver. Chris Kresser and Chris Masterjohn, have called liver a ‘superfood’. They and Zoë Harcombe make a good case for its nutritional qualities; but irrespective of their reputations, it does not make it much more a superfood. You see the term superfood is a social term deemed by consensus of more than a few people. The really interesting question, and subject of this post, is why there is little fanfare from other nutrition experts to give it superfood status.

But for that recognition, liver should be the king of superfoods.  Unless you are very young, your mother or grandmother would have told you how healthy liver is. Hunter-gatherer cultures used to eat it first after killing an animal. Carnivores are said to also eat it first when they kill their prey. It was the original super food so why are so many nutritionists and dietitians reticent to confer superfood status today? Why were organ meats and liver omitted from the nutritional density table in the vegetarian article? Why are they routinely omitted from other lists of ‘superfoods’?

Do Superfoods need to Taste Bad?

Liver is not a superfood just because many find it unappetizing although some may joke that tasting bad is almost a necessity for superfood status. Just look at kale or broccoli! Liver can be eaten as liverwurst or paté and disguised and included in ground meat dishes. Chicken livers are even a traditional ingredient in Bolognese. I am sure these tips could be told to us by dietitians to encourage the consumption of a superfood. Its common practice in newspaper pieces from health experts for other superfoods.

High Cholesterol?

Little has been written about liver’s fall from grace but like eggs, it is high in cholesterol. It may be inferred from the fate of eggs that it fell out of favour due to cholesterol being a nutrient of concern. Unlike eggs, it has not received redemption. It seems it has no friends to make its case. Why is that?

Toxins?

It could perhaps be said that there is a fear that liver may concentrate toxins like heavy metals. Indeed now banned arsenic compounds have been used in factory chicken farming and accumulate in chicken livers. That really is a food safety issue. If liver is not safe to sell then warn the public and don’t allow it to be sold or change farming practices. We did not stop eating spinach when there were e-Coli deaths or stop eating berries when there were cases of cholera from frozen berries. If that is the reason then it is inconsistent.

Dietitians seem more likely to warn you not to eat liver than extol its virtues. Liver is so high in bioavailable vitamin A that in the UK, pregnant women are told to avoid it by dietitians because of the risk of birth defects. Rather, they should also take iron, folate (and now B6) supplements to prevent birth defects when all are in high amounts in liver! So effective is the message that pregnancy forums are full of mums-to-be frantically worried about an accidental meal of liver as though it will kill their unborn child!  It is more likely that your mother or grandmother was told to eat it when she was pregnant with you or one of your parents, and that she did so. I suppose it is lucky you are here!

Superfoods are Mostly Plant-Based

Looking at the prominent superfood lists that I quoted, there are few animal-based superfoods and even fewer that are meat. Most of the lists of superfoods are exclusively or near exclusively plant-based. Since livers’ fall from grace as a cholesterol filled organ meat, meat (in general but not liver specifically) has been associated with cancer in a number of studies. Liver has about a quarter of its fat as saturated fat, but is not in itself a very high-fat food so fat is not a sound reason to avoid liver given its other nutritional virtues. Why else could it be neglected?

Recently, in a lecture, Dr Gary Fettke noted that at its foundation, the science of dietetics had a perspective of vegetarianism because of the involvement of Seventh Day Adventists. Seventh Day Adventists have a core belief in a vegetarian lifestyle. Those dietary beliefs were recorded to have been received from God by Ellen G. White in the 1860s in visions. They included the view that meat is unhealthy and causes cancer and that grains, fruits, and vegetables are especially healthful (superfoods). Medical evangelism, a stated goal of Seventh Day Adventists, appears to extend to dietetics and ‘lifestyle medicine‘. Sanitarium, a company owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, promotes soy and whole grains as superfoods and promotes vegetarian eating and has strong links to the dietetic profession. Seventh Day Adventists believe that modern science has vindicated her visions but is it instead that her visions that have influenced ‘modern dietetic science’? Could it be that proving your prophet and improving the profits of your church create an unholy conflict of interest?

Some may say this is a conspiracy theory however in the field of anthropology and the social sciences, unlike the say the science of physics, what humans believe provides a prima facie case for associated outcomes.

Vegetarian Agenda?

Is liver being unfairly denied superfood status because of a belief-based vegetarian zeitgeist? One that started with the introduction of dietary guidelines and has progressed through to today?

Here is what seems readily apparent:

  1. On the basis of nutritional elements including proteins, vitamins and minerals, liver is clearly a superfood and one which outperforms others.
  2. Liver was likely to have been your grandmother’s and/or mother’s superfood. It was probably your paleo ancestor’s go to food- if available.
  3. It rarely (if at all) appears in lists of superfoods. Those lists are dominated by plant-based foods.
  4. It is high in cholesterol but this is no longer a nutrient of concern. It is not particularly high in either fat or saturated fat.
  5. I could not find any studies even associating the eating of farm animal liver to cancer or adverse health. (If you know of any, then please add to the article comments.)
  6. Liver may not taste great to everyone, but this is not a reason to deny it superfood status.
  7. Unlike eggs, liver has never recovered from the concern over dietary cholesterol. It seems it has had few friends to redeem its name.
  8. Liver may be, without good evidence, tarred by associational studies of other meat products.
  9. There is no nutritional benchmark for a superfood. It is a status conferred by social consensus.
  10. Liver does not have that consensus and is mostly ignored as a superfood by the nutritional and dietetic professions.

Liver: A Fistful of Supplements

What good reason is there for liver not to be a superfood when a serving clearly replaces a fistful of supplements? Why are offalorgan meats and liver as a food absent from our food guidelines altogether? Maybe liver is omitted from our guidelines for the same reason it is omitted from a table in an article convincing you to be vegetarian?

A vegetarian (plant-based) zeitgeist certainly explains it. We have guidelines and dietetics that includes the views that:

An Inconvenient Truth

I made a bet on my health-based on guidelines that appear to be written with a vegetarian agenda and lost. Call me biased, but my hypothesis is simple.

True nutritional science would not have a plant-based bias. Liver is not a superfood because that is an inconvenient truth.

We can’t trust in the nutritional establishment to answer this charge. I am throwing this open to the ‘court of public opinion’.

What do you think?

14 thoughts on “The Superfood Your Dietitian Probably Won’t Tell You to Eat”

  1. I guessed it was liver, I eat it regularly now. Gary is definitely on to something with his exhaustive research into what exactly is going on with official dietary advice, given that there are big organisations besides pharma and food industry who are fiercely resisting change. His uncovering of the devious and long-term manipulation by Seventh Day Adventists is crucial to us being able to fight back against formidable resistance to promotion of low carb healthy fat eating. I am grateful to Gary, and others like him, who are standing up for the world population’s health.

    1. I agree with your sentiments but caution not to demonise Seventh Day Adventists! In my experience, they are not bad people- quite the contrary. They are entitled to their beliefs and to eat as they prefer, but should declare those beliefs as a possible conflict of interest when working on food guidelines, research, studies or giving vegetarian advice as dietitians.

  2. I fully agree! I grew up eating liver both from my grannies and my mom’s kitchens, my Portuguese upbringing made sure that it is tasty… every time!

    1. The change in attitude and advice, without research showing to the contrary, is very telling of a ‘zeitgeist’. We’ve valued and eaten liver for a long time and it seems it is modern dietetics that has changed that.

  3. I don’t know quite why but my nanna, a cypriot, ate lots of liver but said it must always be cooked with onion! Do you know if there is anything to this?

    1. I can’t think of a nutritional reason but I can think of a culinary one. Liver and onions is a classic dish and tastes very good.

    1. Thanks for that link. I think we can add Zoe to the list of people who would rate liver as having superfood status. I added that link to the post.

  4. Had to be liver. Love it, although it is not easy to get regular access and other offal is even more difficult to find, particularly sweetbreads.

    1. I didn’t go into detail about other offal but yes. Sweetbreads, brains, tripe, heart, gizzards, kidneys all could probably claim superfood status too. Its just that liver is such a clear case.

  5. I woulid like to see you write an article on how what is a “Superfood” is determined. How is it possible that eggs and red meat are so low? How can fowl be above eggs and red meat? Meat and eggs are high in B vitamins, including B12, which isn’t even found in plants. The protein is completely bio-available in meat and eggs, unlike vegetables. The only place we can find immediately bio-available Vitamin A is in the fat of meats and seafoods (in vegetables it’s beta-carotenes, which need to be converted to Vitamin A, with a flawed assumption that they automatically will be successfully converted). I just question a system that says grains are more of a super-food than eggs. How do they determine which nutrients are divided by calories? Does it take into account what nutrients are actually most important and essential? It seems like it’s a flawed paradigm with criteria that favor plant foods.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I don’t think there is a need for a separate article. Eggs do appear in a couple of ‘superfood’ lists but not many. I think they are a ‘superfood’ too. Eggs & liver are both high in choline and the best sources if I am not mistaken. Meat will never get superfood status from the existing establishment although I saw pork and beef in one of the more extensive lists (I think it was the top 100 one). You are right to question. Flour needs to be fortified because it is so nutrient deficient and wholegrains are not much better. Unfortunately there appears to be little science in deciding superfoods. My best definition of what constitutes a superfood is that they are “predominantly plant-based ingredients that provide nutrients that are found in animals.”

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