In the mood for superfood! Does superfood marketing portray an elitist understanding of healthy eating?

13 minutes to read
Selin Aydinli

Good, better, superfood. If you look at the hype that has arisen around superfood, you could at least believe this approach. Superfood is a popular breakfast or brunch item, forming a discourse on social media platforms and online stores about healthy, organic, clean, and authentic food practices. Taking a look at the google trends reveals that the search queries for "superfood" have been growing steadily worldwide since 2009 and have risen from 7 to almost 70 (out of 100) from the interest value in 2009 to 2022 (Google Trends, 2022).

But what exactly are these superfoods that everyone is talking about and that many brands and influencers swear by? There is no single definition. In general, the term "superfood" refers to foods that demonstrate high levels of nutrients or bioactive phytochemicals that are important for human health (Taulavuori et al., 2013). A similar and more specific definition comes from Lunn (2006, p. 171), who says that "superfood describes food that is especially rich in phytochemicals. The idea is that by highlighting several foods that are very good sources of antioxidant micronutrients or other classes of plant bioactives, their levels in the diet can be boosted." 

'Superfood' is promoted in a wide variety of media, including news, advertising, and infotainment, for its nutritional value and, therefore, its health-promoting effects (MacGregor et al., 2021). Smith (2019) even talks about some foods having a "healthy halo" because of their affiliation with superfoods. However, despite their promise, clinical studies to prove their efficacy are still lacking (Schiemer et al., 2018; Weitkamp & Eidsvaag, 2014). In marketing and advertising, superfoods like chia seeds, maca powder, or hemp seeds nevertheless promise consumers some health benefits, such as clear skin, anti-aging prevention, vitality, and overall health (MacGregor et al., 2021). Barnhill (2013) aptly defines the promotional approach to superfoods as a "quasi-scientific ideology." An ideology in which ingredients that have been used for centuries in their countries of origin are reconfigured into a commodity for consumption by the beautiful and the rich.

This article uses the method of discourse analysis to show how online stores market superfood as something special and particular using semiotic choices, creating taste regimes with value, and authenticity for certain social classes. 

Superfood discourse in literature and regimes of taste

To better understand the discourse around superfood, let's start by reviewing recent research on discourses around food. The literature has been dealing with the interchange between language, food, identity, and value for many years. Increasingly, the emergence of taste regimes comes into play. Arsel and Bean (2013, p. 899) define regimes of taste as "a discursively constructed normative system that orchestrates the aesthetics of practice in a culture of consumption." Thus, regimes of taste also document how taste is socially inflected. This article explains how online stores like KoRo market superfood as exclusive and at the same time as necessary taste regimes. In the context of superfood, this article draws on the notion of indexicality, which shows that indexical signs themselves form a new context by linking linguistic and semiotic variables associated with a particular object (in this case superfood) (Konnelly, 2020).  As mentioned earlier, this article will use discourse analysis to critically examine one genre of food writing: food advertising in online shops (Freedman & Jurafsky, 2011). 

The term "superfood" refers to foods that demonstrate high levels of nutrients or bioactive phytochemicals that are important for human health

The online stores considered in this article are three stores that sell superfood, namely KoRo, Sunfood superfoods, and Nutstop. This article will analyze the marketing of two “superfoods” called moringa powder and goji berries which are sold on each website and found in countless Instagram posts and online nutrition forums. While Nutstop has 1,159 followers on Instagram, sun food has 39.1k followers, and KoRo (koro_de) even has 227k followers. However, apart from different popularity on Instagram, they all sell and market superfoods. The stores try to make the superfoods palatable and desirable to the customers through visually appealing pictures and extensive descriptions. They use particular visual and linguistic resources to construct different socio-political ideologies and value systems through a focus on food.

These websites are therefore well suited for analysis because they all create the same understanding of aesthetics that makes people give meaning to the products (Arsel & Bean, 2013). In the case of superfoods, this works particularly well, as they have been considered almost a cultural icon in the food cosmos for years, ubiquitous in the media, featured in millions of posts, and seen by millenials as the food that solves all problems (Zappavigna & Ross, 2021). Given the current image of superfoods, the question arises: How do online stores create an elitist understanding of healthy eating through the sale and marketing of superfoods?

From website to food descriptions

If you take a look at the three websites, you will notice a number of parallels. All providers sell superfood, among other things, and Sunfood even concentrates exclusively on "healthy snacks". Each provider also describes on its website how and why the store was founded, which is often accompanied by the vision and goals of the supplier. Sunfood emphasizes that they are a family business that believed in the effects of superfoods as early as 1994 (see Figure 1). KoRo says that it was named after the two founders Kosta and Robert, who were inspired by a book about capitalism. All online suppliers create authenticity by emphasizing their naturalness, ingredients, history, and locality. Nutstop, for example, emphasizes that "our focus is providing our customers with the freshest, premium grade, quality snack products."

Figure 1: The website of Sunfood which demonstrates how they create authenticity.

Superfood - a berry good choice for you!

Indexicality will help show how online stores construct superfoods as something special that presupposes knowledge by using jargon to describe the food. The interpretation of these lexical items (the words used to describe the superfood) shows the value and ideology of the food. Scholars like Cavanaugh et al. (2014) conducted some research about the ideological reevaluation of food and language as "good" or "authentic" and support a simultaneous focus on foodways and discourse. Basically, it shows that regimes of tastes have always wanted to create value for the consumer.

This is exactly the case here with the three online stores. Descriptive adjectives, aestheticization, and nutritional facts were included in this analysis as factors for the creation of value. And there is already a lot of this with the goji berry. Sunfood describes the berry as one of the most nutrient-dense fruits in the world, bringing with it countless benefits such as longevity, vitality, and energy. By including all identifiable nutritional sources in the description, the suppliers presume that the reader can interpret their significance for the gustatory experience. This overlexicalization of benefits shows the customer how important and almost necessary it is to buy this superfood to achieve exactly what it promises. KoRo also describes the appearance of the goji berry by paraphrasing adjectives such as “beautiful with their shiny red color” and aestheticizes the berry, which in addition to the text is also presented multimodally with an image that supports the description. Like KoRo, Nutstop describes the taste of the berry as a mild, slightly sweet flavor and addresses the gustatory perception of the prospective customers in addition to the visual perception. Lastly, Nutstop promises buyers the experience of a “taste sensation” when they eat the berry. This shows that the berry is not only depicted visually, but also its taste is described and its usefulness for health is emphasized.

This overlexicalization of benefits shows the customer how important and almost necessary it is to buy this superfood to achieve exactly what it promises

Similarly, Moringa powder is described as a “nutrient-dense green superfood” that “improves mental clarity, supports the immune system, and increases energy” (Sunfood). Nutstop also describes the appearance of the powder as a “refreshing bright green color”, using not one but three adjectives to emphasize the beauty of the product. The fact that “your body could experience a revitalization” when taking the high fiber powder (koro) gives the product even more value (Nutstop). When creating value for the products, it is noticeable that all online stores use a lot of positive-sounding adjectives to describe the superfoods. In addition, great emphasis is always placed on the health benefits that the berries and powder entail. Through this "health language" and the positive attributes attributed to superfoods, the online stores position the responsibility for a happy and healthy life on the side of the consumer. Zimdars (2021) writes that in times of neoliberalism, health is privatized and thus becomes a private matter. Ergo, people must take full responsibility for their health, which cancels the liability of online stores. 

How online shops create authenticity

Besides creating value, the online retailers also engender authenticity by suggesting that some aspects of lifestyle, class identity, or language are in some way more authentic than others (Freedman & Jurafsky, 2011). Authenticity has even been called "one of the cornerstones of modern marketing" in the literature (M. B. Beverland, 2005). References to traditions and related local geographic regions of superfoods, description of traditional preparation and production methods, emphasis on quality, as well as references to a company's founders can create authenticity for the customer (M. Beverland, 2006). Fischler (1980) refers to this trend in modern society, in which individuals are confronted with a variety of competing socio-cultural norms about what to eat and how to behave, as 'gastro-anomy'. 

In fact, this trend is also emerging here. All three stores explain not only their founding history but also that of the goji berries. Sunfood and KoRo, for example, explain that the fruit is actually called Wolfberry and comes from Asia. Sunfood also explains that the berry is nowadays also celebrated by western culture and thus emphasizes the locality and historicity of the berry. KoRo gives customers an even deeper insight into the different types of goji berries with an extra link to varieties and origin and explains that in Asia there are even whole holidays dedicated to the berry. By explaining the origin of the fruit to the customers, they not only attribute a certain authenticity to the stores but also to the consumers. Similar ways can be found for the Moringa powder that according to Sunfood has been used as both a food source and a supplement for at least 4,000 years. This statement closes the gap between 'us' (western culture) and 'them' (who have been eating the berries for thousands of years) and thus promises customers a reliable nutritional supplement. To increase authenticity, they explain to customers how the powder is made from the dried organic leaves from the Moringa oleifera tree, native to South Asia. KoRo even describes the tree as the "tree of life", using the metaphor to show how important the 100% organic powder will be for a healthy life. 

Blurred lines between necessity and luxury

Moreover, it must also be mentioned that the definition of authenticity varies within social classes. For the working class, authenticity can be anchored in tradition and can be found in a family business with a unique founder. Studies have also found that customers in lower social classes evaluate the price as more critical and important, especially on hedonic consumption occasions, and make the purchase of a product dependent on its price. Higher income, on the other hand, leads to lower price sensitivity for non-essential food items (Wakefield & Inman, 2003). For the upper class, being authentic implies using high-quality natural ingredients and avoiding artificial ingredients, as well as preservatives (Freedman & Jurafsky, 2011). If you look at the descriptions of the goji berry, it is noticeable that probably the higher social class is to be addressed.

Sunfood attributes the berries to a high source of iron, riboflavin, potassium, and fiber, which represents a linguistic complexity associated with higher social class (Freedman & Jurafsky, 2011). All retailers promise certified organic and verified non-GMO products with eye-catching labels on the picture and descriptions. These descriptions put the eater on the "right" side of ethical consumption in terms of food. KoRo describes the berries as a must-have for every breakfast bowl, using strong words like "must" and "every". Sunfood also recommends not only 'eating' the berries every day but 'enjoying' them every day. These descriptions show the consumer that berries are not only a luxury for in-between but even a must-have for every day, regardless of the price range of 20 to 58 euros for one kilogram which only people with a certain income can afford.

Figure 2: KoRo's food description

Again, parallels can be found with Moringa powder, which Nutstop says you need to “continue to commit to a healthy lifestyle”. Sunfood describes the powder as a complex superfood that both “nourishes and detoxifies” the body. This health language is also connected to higher social class (Freedman & Jurafsky, 2011). Nutstop claims that the powder can even relieve feelings of depression and anxiety. The companies use jargon to ascribe a high value to the foods that consumers acquire when they eat these fruits. This choice carries an indexical association with superfood as something special that requires knowledge by describing the foods with technical terms. Here we can perhaps already see that behind supposedly authentic activities of the upper class, such as ecotourism, or the slow-food movement, lies a covert form of status-seeking (Potter, 2011). This opposition of classes in the context of food shows that both food and language are clear anchor points for class membership. So yesterday's breakfast may not only say something about the eater’s nationality but also about their social class. In addition, different language styles and means are also a way of expressing identity to a class. The analysis of food descriptions like those of superfoods in online stores is thus well suited to investigate some of these interrelated cultural and social factors.

Superfood and authenticity, necessity, and aestheticization

Ultimately, it can be stated that the online stores considered here construct a certain authenticity, necessity, and aestheticization of superfoods.
However, the fact that most superfoods have to travel long distances before they end up in porridge or muesli in Europe casts doubt on the authenticity of the products. What is clear is that there is still no study that has been able to prove the effectiveness of the foods and yet a huge hype continues around the superfoods that so many influencers and online markets swear by. In society, an approach is emerging that puts the understanding of food in terms of nutrients, rather than the more specific advice of the experts. Scrinis refers to this approach as the ideology of nutritionism (Scrinis, 2008).

KoRo, while espousing the notion that quality nutrition should be accessible to all, imposes (as do the other providers) certain economic and socio-cultural capital with the price and choice of indexicalities. I agree with Carr who shows that expertise is a context-specific, discursive performance that includes socialization, evaluation, institutionalization, and naturalization. Related to the context of superfoods, this means that taste regimes socialize people by using and teaching jargon. Institutions such as social media organize this knowledge about taste. By describing superfoods as fancy, eating these foods becomes something fancy as well. Conclusively, this means that certain forms of knowledge are portrayed as desirable and the people who participate in them as recognizable. 

What must not be forgotten, however, is the fact that most superfoods are very expensive and not accessible to everyone, both ecologically and economically. In the end, many believe that these superfoods are indispensable for a healthy life that is preserved for the rich.


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