Are Superfoods Bad for the Environment?

bowls and spoons full of superfoods, including spirulina and goji berries

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It seems like every time you open a food magazine or read a food website these days, people are promoting the latest “superfood.” I’ve learned from these sources that my smoothie just isn’t complete without açai berries or maca, and that day without chia seeds is like a day without sunshine.

Superfoods are very trendy right now. Experts estimate that the global market for “functional food” reached $177 billion in 2013, with a 7% annual growth rate. With so much money at stake, the “superfood” trend has been co-opted to sell everything from broccoli to vitamin supplements.

So, with so much ado about superfoods, just what is a “superfood” anyway?

What is a Superfood?

“Superfood” is nothing more than marketing jargon for fruits, vegetables, or other foods considered better than competing items in providing health benefits ranging from fighting disease or aiding in digestion to promoting brain or heart health.

As you can imagine, there is wide latitude in that definition.

In various healthy lifestyle communities, superfoods are usually exotic plant products that come from far away lands. These expensive, fashionable foods include things like goji berries from China and Tibet; açai, maca, chia, and quinoa from South America; coconut, nonifruit and durian from Southeast Asia; mesquite, agave, and spirulina from Mexico; and chlorella from Japan.

Every year, the industry seems to “discover” more superfood “miracles” from the recesses of developing nations to sell to American healthseekers. While many of these foreign foods are very nutritious (and indeed, I have consumed my share of raw cacao, chia and quinoa), why does more and more of what we eat in the U.S. carry such a heavy environmental and social footprint?

Can we not get enough nutrition without consuming far-flung novelties shipped from thousands of miles away?

Transporting food is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and accounts for 11% of all pollution coming from the food system. Each year, 817 million tons of food are shipped around the planet. The result is that a basic diet of imported products can use four times the energy and produce four times the emissions of an equivalent domestic diet!

Some would argue that because of topsoil depletion, environmental pollution, and high-stress, modern life in the U.S., eating regular food just isn’t enough to be healthy anymore. And besides, these new superfoods are sustainably harvested in a way that protects the habitats they come from and pays a fair wage, right?

Hmmm. Let’s break these arguments down…

Superfoods are sustainably harvested, right?

American entrepreneurs have been making a killing for the past decade selling luxury foods at a premium to people who don’t need them, by paying undernourished peasants in developing countries a miserably low “fair wage” to “carefully” exploit their natural resources.

In reality, because demand is so huge, farmers quickly replace local staple crops with “fairly traded” crops exported for American markets, which in turn undermines local self-reliance and the sustainability of nourishing traditional diets.

Take the recent boom in quinoa for example. Quinoa is a nutrient-dense, gluten-free grain that comes from the Bolivian Andes, where indigenous peasants have traditionally grown it alongside potatoes, llamas and alpaca for thousands of years.

With the burgeoning demand in Europe and the United States for healthy, gluten-free grains, quinoa—which is very high in protein—has become very popular, especially among foodies.

But because of this, today, most Bolivians cannot afford to buy quinoa, and the quinoa-growing region of the country is also the most malnourished because those who grow quinoa for export now purchase refined grains to eat from the store.

The region also faces decreased soil fertility, as farmers mine their soil to grow quinoa year after year to meet Western demand, instead of using traditional methods of rotating crops with llama pasture to restore fertility and prevent erosion.

But what about “wildcrafted” superfoods like maca?

Indeed if the choice is between clearing vast tracts of rainforest to grow superfoods on sterile plantations that abuse their workers (many of them children) and “wildcrafting” the same crop from its native habitat while paying a relatively high wage to the locals, the latter is obviously the better choice.

But how sustainable can “wildcrafting” be in a $177 billion superfood industry, really?

Even in our own country, precious, local superfoods and medicines like morel mushrooms, echinacea, and American ginseng have been “wildcrafted” almost to extinction in their natural habitats, and now must be farmed on a large, environmentally-compromising scale to meet demand.

Thanks to the American marketing machine, little known foods and medicines that are carefully wildcrafted from their natural habitats don’t stay little-known or carefully harvested for long.

Just like American demand for sugar, coffee, bananas, and chocolate did in previous centuries, our ravenous national appetite for coconut, palm oil, quinoa, and dozens of other popular imported foods are decimating local cultures and ecosystems all over the world today.

The real cost of superfoods

Since the advent of industrialization (and the aggressive marketing that came with it), we have increasingly become a nation of unfettered consumers. Americans comprise just 5% of the world’s population, and yet use more than 40% of its resources.

Sustainable harvesting practices are simply not efficient enough to meet America’s ravenous demand for food we don’t really need. To be brutally honest about it, our insatiable hunger for everything from chocolate to soybeans is pillaging the planet and its people.

Simply put, Americans are eating their way through ecosystems all over the world.

No matter how you justify it, the choice to be a “green” consumer is still to be a consumer. Over-consumption and sustainability are not compatible, no matter how eco-friendly we try to be about it.

There is no inalienable right to eat chocolate or quinoa every day, on demand, especially when the people who grow it for us often don’t have enough to eat at all because of it.

On a finite planet with a growing population, it doesn’t much matter if we buy expensive, organic, “fair trade” cacao or cheap, plantation-grown cocoa. Either way, we’re ultimately getting our national chocolate fix by decimating local food systems and pilfering the limited natural resources of poor people in tiny countries who may not even have electricity and indoor plumbing.

A balance must be struck that is equitable and sustainable for everyone on the planet.

Soil depletion means we can’t get enough nutrition from our food, right?

Soil depletion is a major concern in the U.S. Many experts believe we may be on the brink of a food crisis because we have squandered and contaminated this precious resource with decades of intensive, industrial farming practices. This begs the question: Why are we not working to rejuvenate our own soils with sustainable composting and regenerative agriculture practices, instead of depleting the very fragile, tropical soils of other countries to meet the American demand for faddish specialty foods?

American demand for more food than we need is helping drive us to deplete our water resources very quickly. What many people don’t realize is that this same demand is driving us—and the countries from which we import superfoods—to reach “peak soil” too. So by neglecting our own soils, and importing superfoods to make up the difference, we are essentially starving Peter to feed Paul.

We can make a powerful statement against the malnutrition and environmental destruction caused by export farming by spending our money at home supporting small farmers who use good land management practices to maintain fertile soils that produce high-quality, local food.

Pollution and stress require greater nutrition, right?

If environmental pollution and the stress of modern life are the reasons why we need better nutrition, then, really, tell me what “superfood” could possibly make up for: toxic air pollution inside and out; chlorinated, fluoridated, medicated tap water; a processed, high-sugar diet; and a community-deficient lifestyle that demands too much of us mentally, spiritually and economically?

Frankly, we would be much better off spending our money and energy fixing these crucial problems than deluding ourselves that goji berries are going to somehow make a difference.

“Regular” food just isn’t healthy anymore, right?

If by “regular” food you mean the Standard American Diet of processed, packaged foods and pallid, pre-ripe produce shipped hundreds or thousands of miles, then yes: “Regular” food is not enough to keep us healthy in the best of circumstances. In fact, this “regular” food is the very source of most of our health problems in the United States.

The irony is that before these nutritionally bankrupt, industrially-produced foods became the foundation of our diets, most Americans used to eat quite well, mostly from domestically-grown, organic, in-season crops—and we still can.

Other continents do not hold a monopoly on nutrient-dense foods.

When grown organically, sustainably and locally, many traditional North American foods like hempseed, sweet potatoes, blueberries or nettles can be every bit as nutrient-dense as any new-fangled food we might buy from afar. And, I believe that choosing such time-tested domestic foods is a big part of solving our problems of over-consumption, soil depletion, environmental pollution and high-stress, modern life.

Here are my favorite 10 homegrown superfoods. These extremely nutritious, domestic beauties are affordable, readily available, and can be locally and sustainably produced very easily. Enjoy them with a clean conscience!

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41 thoughts on “Are Superfoods Bad for the Environment?”

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  1. This NEEDED to be said. So HARD. I was just discussing the subject with my father. While these superfoods are no doubt healthy — we are being sold a slick marketing line for a hefty profit. I say the most “super” of foods is that grown in our own backyards or from the farmer down the road. Perhaps that is a bit of privileged speaking, but trucking in magical produce from exotic places and shrinkwrapping it in plastic isn’t the answer.
    You are awesome, Dawn. Thanks for saying what was on my mind!

  2. Do you have any citations for the claim that quinoa production is leading to malnutrition in local Andean farmers? I’ve been reading conflicting articles, some say that it has only provided a boon to the Bolivian economy. Thanks.

    1. The trouble is that the demand has raised the price on quinoa, and is now farmed industrially for export. As in the U.S., only the wealthiest landowners can afford to farm on an industrial scale, leaving small farmers and those who do not farm at the mercy of the market, where less nutritious foods like rice and processed food is cheaper and taking over the diet. So yes, quinoa has been great economically for the richest Bolivians, but horrible for the poorest. Links here, here, and here.

  3. Thanks so much for this. It’s excellent. I think that, in addition to this, the fact is that eating imported “superfoods” not only wreaks havoc on the environment but also is incredibly socially unjust, taking food away from locals. We don’t think about the impact our eating has on the land or the people! I’m bummed out that someone I know is peddling imported superfood shakes as necessary “nutritional supplements.”

  4. Thank you for another informative and thought-provoking post. On on gluten-free journey we do eat various odd and exotic stuff like coconut flour and teff, but I never did get into the “superfood” thing.

  5. I wish the US would stop all foods imports from Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, VietNam, the Philippines and China because those countries lack hygiene, their processing plants and packaging are filthy. A few years ago the trend was cat’c claw from Peru and people quickly realized it was a sham. Won’t you people ever learn? The US banned all imports of Argentinian beef decades ago and rightly so.

  6. I agree with most of your list (from my research chia has not been a much used food for quite some time in Mexico so buying it now seems to be a positive for the Mexican farmer, as in, we are not cutting into their own food supply) but what really resonates with me is the fervor with which Americans add these superfoods into their diets! Geez. People are bragging (comments read in other blogs) how they add chia to everything. Why would that seem like a good idea to ANYone?
    Why indeed. Because we are super CONSUMERS and therein lies the biggest problem of all, in my humble opinion.

  7. Oh so much to take in andconsider! (I love my quinoa… and coconut oil) Thanks for sharing with us at Eco-Kids! I hope you will come link up with us again this week!!

  8. Kathy @ Mind Body and Sole

    Beautifully written post! Informative and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing it on Wildcrafting Wednesday! 🙂

  9. What a great piece! It’s something I preach about…green consumers indeed. It’s still consuming, but that’s hard to get across to people. You did it exceptionally.

  10. What a fantastic article! With all the coconut foods and packaged ‘superfoods’ that are in vogue these days, we have been seeing how it just detracts from the real goal: to eat real whole local chemical-free plant and animal foods! I wrote an article about this last year:, with my own list (like yours, love it!), but applaud you for looking further into the environmental and cultural impacts of our global diets. Will be sharing this article with our community for sure! Actually, could you explain the ‘Shared with’ long list at the end of your article? We are new to running a health portal website and would love to know how that bit works! Yours in health, Bex

    1. So glad you like the article! If you click on any of the links in the shared by list, it will take you to a blog linkup party at another blog where I have shared this post, and others have shared their posts as well. Blog linkup parties are a lot of fun and a great way to learn and share!

  11. Sorry, but you’ve been scammed. This idea that Bolivians are just poor rural farmers who are so put upon because people are buying their crops is bunk (and kinda racist.) They are business men and women. They Like profit. They love it when you buy their product.

    For more information, go here:

    1. The article is about many foods, not just quinoa. And the article is more about how much tropical soils, natural resources and local food traditions are being destroyed by American consumer demand for products we don’t need. We simply consume too much and are wrecking the world doing it. To reduce this to a issue of business and profit is exactly the problem I am describing. But thanks for your opinion.

  12. Thanks for writing about this. It’s curious how some of us pretend to be living such healthy lifestyles while consuming these foods that have a huge negative impact on our environment. Local seems to be the way to go as much as possible.

  13. Anne @ Quick and Easy Cheap and Healthy

    Interesting! Good food for thought. Thanks for sharing at Healthy 2Day Wednesday; come back tomorrow and see if you were featured!

  14. Could you cite some sources for how importing these superfoods is screwing over native people? I have read some of these accusations before, but don’t remember seeing any sources to back them up. Thanks!

    1. Yes, and I wonder if you know of any good info on the ‘fair trade’ cacao industry, and rapadura, perhaps and evaluation of different companies? I completely agree on the superfoods hype, and use rosehips, raw butter, honey and dandelions for my ‘superfoods’! But still consider chocolate a good treat and would like to have some tools to evaluate my sources, so hard to know what they are really doing down there without going in person, agh.

  15. YOU ARE 100% on TARGET! This superfood craze is just a marketing ploy. If we got back to eating proper foods that are pastured and grown in good soil we would have all the nutrition we need. People are starved for nutrients and thus need ‘super food’ nutrition which is actually starving less fortunate around the world. People need MORE awareness about these issues! Thank you from bringing it up!

    I did an article similar to this not too long ago. The quinoa issue is a huge problem that no one really knows. It is so sad!

  16. Amazing post! I have been on a “whole food” journey for a couple years now, but can’t get over the amount of brown rice people seem to want me to eat in my diet. We don’t grow rice in Maine, but we do grow a lot of potatoes. I am not sure if I could go completely vegan eating an entirely local diet – we have a very short growing season – but I always buy from the farmers’ market before anywhere else, and we belong to a summer and winter CSA. I may be one of the lucky ones that can source pretty much anything I would want locally, but I think that we, as a country, can and should do a better job at providing for ourselves on a local level. Of course, I am guilty of having quinoa in my pantry right now 🙂


    Thanks for linking your great post to FAT TUESDAY. This was very interesting! Hope to see you next week!

    Be sure to visit on Sunday for Sunday Snippets – your post from Fat Tuesday may be featured there!

  18. Applause! I love this post. That superfood nonsense has bothered me for years, especially because of its emphasis on imported foods. I tried a raw vegan diet several years ago and I was appalled at how dependent I became on imported foods like Thai coconuts. I felt like my diet became ridiculously unsustainable, though of course the raw food gurus promised me it would be the opposite. 🙂 My local grass-fed beef is the closest I need to a “superfood.”

    1. That was my biggest “beef” with raw veganism too! Though you can eat raw without a lot of imported food, and we do, there are so many great, nutrient-dense superfoods right here at home, including grass-fed beef liver. Thanks for commenting!

  19. Laura @ Stealthy Mom

    What a great post!

    I ran to my box of Quinoa and there was no country of origin listed. I know we can grow amaranth (a close cousin of quinoa and pigweed) as far north as Saskatchewan so I wonder if there are quinoa farmers in the USA now. I sure hope the country of origin was not listed for that reason.

    It is funny how a “health food” label drives prices up. Flaxseed used to be a byproduct of linen production. I’ve been eating it my entire life because my grandfather farmed it. Now it is a premium product.

    Buying locally where I live is tricky because there are miles and miles of GMO corn and soybeans for as far as the eye can see.

    1. Thanks, Laura! Many imported superfoods can be grown domestically in different parts of the country, like goji berries, quinoa, and more. And getting your food domestically (even if it isn’t very local) is FAR better than importing it from subsistence farmers in developing countries. And food “made in the U.S.A.” has other economic benefits to us all too, especially when sustainably and organically grown by responsible, innovative American farmers.

    2. Yes, there are quinoa farmers in Idaho and Colorado, perhaps other places. We must remember that potatoes were once an ‘exotic’ food to Europeans which have now become naturalized all over the world! If we really enjoy these foods many of them are easy to grow, bu many Andean ones are very climate specific, although they can grow in cold and arid environments they need equal day length found in their region, so very adapted to northern latitudes with long days in the summer.

      However, one of the drawbacks to quinoa is that it is so new to the diets of people without Andean ancestry, there are in fact allergies to it. If you think about it, many Native people of this continent who were not accustomed to dairy obviously had problems with it when European suddenly introduced it, a famous story. Similarly, quinoa is a wonderful food for people who have always eaten it, but be cautious with foods new to your ethnicity. Not to say we can’t eat them, just be aware.

      Also, it is good to research a new food and follow traditional methods of processing, the people who survived on it for generations know best. Incans rinsed and rinsed quinoa to remove sapponins… this is rarely done in the U.S. and is often a cause of sensitivities that may not have happened otherwise.

      1. Excellent point!

        I have done some research on this myself, and noticed that quinoa really can be grown quite widely in other countries. We really need to start growing our own quinoa if we are to continue to eat this stuff.

  20. Great post! What do you think of Aronia berry? I saw it referenced in the comments of the Treehugger article. Looking for things to plant in my yard. 🙂

  21. Great post! We use some of these food regularly, some occasionally, and some rarely. There is definitely room for improvement! I have a question about bee pollen/royal jelly. How are these foods used? Are there recipes to incorporate them, or is it best to eat them plain? Bee pollen is available to me through my co-op, but I’ve never know what to do with it.


    1. Small Footprint Mama

      Thanks for commenting Jen!

      Bee pollen can be added to cereal, blended in smoothies, or just eaten straight. Some people say to eat it straight from the spoon on an empty stomach then chase it with some juice and wait 20 minutes before eating anything else. Fresh bee pollen is much better than freeze-dried.

      1. Thanks! I’ll have to check if it’s fresh or freeze dried. I’m going to give it a try… hopefully it’s fresh.

  22. I love, love, love this post. And though I’ve been interested in herbs for years, I had no idea about oregano! I’ll be sure to give mine some extra loving glances when I walk through the garden today, lol. Bravo!

  23. Great summary of the ecological impact of superfoods, and I love the list you came up with!

    Thanks for joining in the Fight Back Friday carnival today.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  24. Very informative post! We need to remember the treasures we have nearby. I just finished preparing my beef broth for the month and recently posted on nutrient-dense food, but not as intelligently as you have. Bravo!

  25. What a FANTASTIC article! seriously, this was a great post. I agree with you 100% and I really liked how you pointed out the “green consumer” part. I’m guilty of that and I constantly have to step back.

    I find that living in Canada I have to be more conscious of what I buy- citrus fruits are out (as they don’t grow on the East Coast) etc. So are avocados….
    But there are always alternatives here that you can’t get other places… and are extremely healthy (should we purchase sustainably and locally).



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