Ever wondered what it is about a superfood that makes it so ‘super’? Are they really the new way forward for sustainability?

Ah, the famous avocado. Perhaps the most popular ‘superfood’ in the world; the market for this South American fruit (yes, avocado is a fruit) has grown rapidly since 2012, and according to Freshala Exports, UK imports of avocado were valued at £250 million in 2021. It makes sense, considering every ‘instagrammable’ recipe since then features avocado.

Humans have been eating them for thousands of years, but the millennial and Gen Z obsession with the fruit has recently sent demand skyrocketing. What is it about the avocado that made it such a worldwide phenomenon in the last decade? 


Marketing. Avocados are goldmine for marketers, andlabelling them ‘superfoods’ has led to a crazy surge in their demand, with people harnessing the avocado for its supposed environmental and health benefits. The same goes for other popular superfoods; goji berries, papaya, spirulina, plant milk, they’re slapped with classic marketing labels like ‘life-giving’ and ‘earth friendly’ to draw us in!

The term ‘superfood’ first appeared in 1949 in Canada but was popularised by the United Fruit Company, and today, the European Union considers the term ‘superfoods’ to be misrepresentative and a risk to consumers. I mean, is a goji berry really ‘life-giving’, guys? 

Honor Elridge, avocado expert and policy leader of PlantLife, an international conservation charity for nature, told Behind the Bite some more about the ‘superfood’ phenomenon.

“There is nothing in the term ‘superfood’ that indicates that they are sustainable. In fact, the term itself doesn’t actually mean anything. The concept of ‘superfoods’ has no basis in science. While some of these foods (avocados included) do have well-proven health benefits, the term is merely a marketing device,” she says.

Now I know the point of marketing is to promote and exaggerate a product to drive up sales. But the consumer perception that certain foods are ‘better’ than others can create a huge knock-on effect. 

Theodora Fontas, managing Director at Chef’s 4 Impact, a non-for-profit food industry specialist, says: “Interest in a certain food leads to huge explosions in their production around the world. For example, farmers around the world have switched to producing avocados from subsistence crops, since they know that they can make a significant profit exporting avocados to the Global North. 

“This has meant that more and more land has been converted into producing avocados. This puts increased pressure on wild habitats. Then the avocado plantations use chemicals to maximise production, which can have negative consequences for biodiversity. The use of these chemicals has been linked to the decline in bees and other insects, and in the decline in water quality.”

A surge in food production can also lead to political and socio-economic turmoil, as can be seen with avocados in Mexico, Theodora adds. Who knew avocados could be so controversial?  

The truth is, foods are not naturally more environmentally friendly or ethically sourced than others;  it all depends on their production method. Foods which are ‘super’ in one country, can be harmful to another.  We shouldn’t categorise foods as inherently good or bad, but instead question whether it’s been grown in an intensive industrial way or whether it’s been grown in harmony with nature.  

Behind the Bite asked sustainability expert, Mara Carraro, co-ordinator at the Sustainable Food Places campaign, whether we actually can categorise a certain food as sustainable. 

Spoiler alert, we can’t. 

She says: “When considering food sustainability, there are three different things to look for; How are they grown, where are the ingredients coming from, and how are they being processed? So a food’s sustainability level is extremely specific depending on where you’re buying the product from. 

“It’s hard to categorise plant-based milk in one level of sustainability because oat milk can be made in the British Isles (so is considered more sustainable) but almond milk is imported into the British Isles and takes a lot more water to be made.” 

So after reading that, maybe you would think oat milk is the most sustainable plant milk, right?


We’re yet to throw the final test into the mix; processing.  Products don’t magically get packaged and delivered to our fridge shelves after they’re grown (although that would make life a lot easier).  So while oats are grown in the British Isles,  oat milk has vegetable oil in it, and so the question changes. Instead of asking, ‘where were the oats grown?’, we now have to ask;

  • ‘Where is the vegetable coming from?’
  • ‘What’s the process of fermentation?’
  • ‘What kind of packaging is it in?’
  • ‘Is the packaging recyclable?’ 

The list goes on and on and on and it almost seems impossible to define the foods which are most sustainable. So what can consumers do to eat sustainably and ethically if there isn’t a category of foods which are ‘super’ for the earth? 

Major food sustainability campaigns such as Sustainable Food Places suggest that buying local and seasonal ingredients is the way forward for environmentally friendly and nutritious lifestyles. 

“There’s a real confusion that happens between sustainable and healthy, and there is debate about whether things that are unhealthy are sustainable. But I think if it’s local, seasonal, not mega-processed, and you’re treating the ingredients well then that gives you a sustainable and healthy diet,” said Mara.

If we continue to focus on ‘the most sustainable crops’, we enter into a never-ending cycle of focusing too heavily on certain ‘superfoods’, driving up demand. Mara continues: “This puts pressure on the environment and farmers, and ultimately damages the earth, our health, and our communities.”

Don’t worry guys, your beloved avocado toast isn’t going to destroy the planet, but it’s all a matter of balance. To lead a truly healthy and sustainable lifestyle we should stop giving in to superfood marketing, and start paying attention to local and seasonal foods available to us.