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  • Aine Dougherty

Superfoods As Status Symbols: How 'wellness' became an exclusive commodity

My açaï bowl from Hi-Vibe Organic Superfood Juicery in River North, Chicago looked almost too good to eat. Adorned with golden flecks of bee pollen (to protect my immune system). Drizzled with sprouted cinnamon maca almond butter (to enhance my mood). Dotted with granola, coconut flakes, chia and sunflower seeds for a bit of crunch, and fresh strawberries for sweetness. After a thorough examination of the oft-Instagrammed creation, I grabbed my spoon and dug deep, unearthing a frozen concoction that was a garish, almost unnaturally bright shade of pink. In this recipe, pitaya, or dragon fruit, had been blended with chaga, a medicinal mushroom (to soothe my stress), and banana. Finally, something I’ve heard of.

After perusing the menu and glancing past options like the $11 Shaman Shake or the equally pricey Kill Shot, I decided to ask the cashier a few questions about how exactly I could attain the level of enlightenment promised by the juicery’s 100% organic “elevated sustenance.” Faced with my rapid-fire interrogation (“What will maca do for me? What about bee pollen? And brain octane mct?’ How exactly do you pronounce ‘schizandra berry?’), his voice quivered a bit, although he still produced an answer for each and every one of my questions and assured me wholeheartedly that the benefits – my protected immune system, my soothed stress and my enhanced mood – were worth the big bucks the trendy juice bar was charging. Still, I winced a little as I relinquished my debit card to pay for the $14 bowl ($15.50 with tax).

And yet, when I asked if there was a certain demographic that frequented the juice bar more than others, his answer was a little more surprising. Yes, he noted, many of the customers were older, more financially stable businessmen and women in their 30s and 40s – but when the shop had to close unexpectedly for a week, a hungry construction worker from the site across the street stormed in the following Monday, indignant over the brief hiatus that had interrupted his normal lunch routine.

But is this the norm? Are people from lower socioeconomic statuses really interested in these trendy superfoods and willing to spend their hard-earned dollars on an açaï bowl for lunch every day? And should they be?

 

Chicago-based registered dietitian Tina Lam says that the term “superfoods” mean something different to everyone, but she considers any nutrient-dense food to be a superfood – including the regular fruits and veggies, lean meats and healthy fats you can find in your neighborhood grocery store. A 2017 study by Dutch sociologists, titled “Does social distinction contribute to socioeconomic inequalities in diet: the case of ‘superfoods’ consumption,” specifies that superfoods are “food products that contain high amounts of particular nutrients (e.g. antioxidants, vitamins, minerals), which were only recently marketed to a wider public in Western countries.” In other words, the term has increasingly been used to denote trendier, more “exotic” nutrient-packed foods from quinoa to kale to turmeric – a spice beloved in Southeast Asia for thousands of years – that have become more and more popular among the health-obsessed Western communities who can afford them.

The classic status symbols of history – BMWs and Rolex watches – are giving way to these kind of expensive and unfamiliar products that promise a wealth of purported health benefits. Simply knowing about these exotic superfoods and their benefits, as well as having enough discretionary income to buy and consume them, has become the newest form of cultural capital. The Dutch study went on to note that “those in a higher socioeconomic position adopt dietary patterns by which they can distinguish themselves from lower socioeconomic groups.” By viewing food and wellness as pleasures – as “elevated sustenance,” if you will – wealthier people distinguish themselves from underprivileged consumers, who are more likely to view it as a basic necessity – meaning they are less likely to explore and experiment with trendy, nutrient-packed superfoods like the bee pollen, chia seeds and chaga that enhanced my Hi-Vibe açaï bowl.

Not only do wealthier people want to show off that they can afford these products – a form of “social distinction,” according to the Dutch study – but they have also been likely influenced by the “perception of health benefits.” Many of these superfoods have become so popular because they have been marketed as miracle powders, magical medicinal mushrooms and supernatural supplements. Lam thinks people want a kind of a “magic bullet” that’s going to “cure everything.” But one açaï bowl won’t lower your cholesterol or make you drop five pounds instantly. Lam stresses that, while many of these trendier superfoods are indeed packed with nutrients, in order to really see results, people need a lifestyle change and a balanced diet, rather than putting one ingredient “on a pedestal.” But sometimes people can be “misguided by the media or celebrities” into thinking that they need to shell out hundreds of dollars in order to reap the miracle benefits hidden inside brightly colored bottles of cold-pressed juice, Lam says.

 

Lower socioeconomic groups, including the patient population that Lam treats at Sinai Medical Group clinics on the South and West sides of Chicago, simply can’t spend their money on these kind of luxuries. “A lot of my patients are on a fixed income,” Lam says, “so they will get government help every month, and they usually go out and buy what they need at the beginning of the month.” Fresh produce and other perishable items are like ticking time bombs inside a fridge or pantry – so Lam’s first mission is convincing her patients to look for more accessible alternatives, like canned salmon instead of fresh, or frozen veggies that will last until the next check comes.

This mission can be especially difficult, she says, because her patient population is often more focused on short-term as opposed to long-term benefits. “They’re like, ‘Okay, I have five dollars, and I can either go and get some groceries, and then I’ll have to cook it, and then I’ll have to clean…. Or I can just go get a Big Mac and a drink and fries and call it a meal,’” Lam explains. Those five dollars would stretch a lot longer if they were spent on groceries instead of fast food, but her patients not necessarily in that mindset. And they are certainly not in the mindset of spending those five dollars on a steaming cup of Bulletproof Coffee (lab-tested coffee swirled with brain octane mct and grass-fed butter) from swanky spots like Hi-Vibe Juicery, or on a $38 box of Moon Dusts™ (“custom blends of adaptogenic superherbs and supermushrooms”) sold by fashionable LA-based health-food company Moon Juice.

This short-term tendency is not the only barrier that lower-income communities face if they want to gain access to the trendy world of superfoods. The extremely high price tags that often accompany these products are compounded by the fact that superfoods are not a one-stop miracle cure – you would need to eat a steady diet of açaï bowls in order to truly reap the nutritional benefits, as you would with any healthy food, even humble brown rice and broccoli. After just one week of Hi-Vibe indulgence, you would rack up a bill of over $100 – on lunch.

But before you could even think about spending that kind of money on superfoods, you would have to know what they are. “For (my patients) to try something that’s completely out of their comfort zone,” Lam says, it can be scary. “You say kombucha (fermented black or green tea) and no one in my patient population knows what that is, you know?” Cultural differences between socioeconomic groups can have an important effect on consumers’ knowledge of and willingness to try more exotic foods, and many of Lam’s patients likely do not follow the Instagram accounts singing the praises of açaï bowls and maca root that wealthier communities are interested in. “You have to think about what they were taught when they were younger,” she says. “Do they even know how to cook kale? You can talk about all of these other fruits and vegetables, but some of them don’t even know what it is, or how to use it.”

And if they have heard of it and express an interest in buying it and cooking it, can they even get to it? Geographical and physical barriers play another huge part in the accessibility and exclusivity of the superfoods industry. River North, the Loop, Lincoln Park and other upscale neighborhoods in Chicago are crawling with juice bars and organic eateries like Hi-Vibe, Left Coast, Peeled and more, but the South and West sides of the city are notably more barren. Lam’s clients’ go-to stores are “the corner liquor store or grocery store, quick shops like Food 4 Less or Pete’s Market,” she says. A Whole Foods Market opened in Englewood last year, but the aforementioned obstacles, like a limited budget and a reluctance to try unfamiliar foods, still remain, along with the fact that not all of the people in these neighborhoods have access to a car – lugging grocery bags overflowing with kale and avocados on the bus back home in the brutal Chicago wind and snow is no easy feat.

 

There is no easy solution to the subject of food deserts and wellness disparities between socioeconomic groups, so how can lower-income communities gain access to the same kind of nutritional benefits that are making waves in wealthier ones? Lam says it is all about education. Her patients do not need to chow down on bee pollen-bedecked smoothie bowls every day; they just need to be educated on the different, cheaper ways in which they can reap the kind of nutritional benefits that have made these superfoods so popular. “Like kombucha,” Lam says, “it’s great because it’s fermented, but I’m not going to tell my patients to go out and get that.” Instead of recommending that they spend four or five dollars on a single bottle of the acidic, funky fermented drink, she tells her patients to buy a carton of yogurt – it is cheaper, it will last longer and it boasts the same gut-healthy probiotics found in kombucha.

“It’s baby steps,” Lam says. “It’s just re-educating these patients to know that you don’t need spirulina, or you don’t need to have kombucha to have these benefits if you can get them somewhere else…. What can they really incorporate into their diet to have the same effect?” Access to this kind of information is the most important factor in making nutrient-dense foods – in other words, the more realistic superfoods – more accessible to underprivileged socioeconomic groups.

I can’t say I felt my mood enhance or my immune system strengthen or my stress reduce any noticeable amount after scarfing down my Hi-Vibe açaï bowl. Although it was tasty and filling, it in no way justifies spending $15 every day on these kind of “elevated eats” that may be nutrient-packed but are astronomically overpriced and often falsely advertised as a miracle “magic bullet” that will cure your acne, lower your cholesterol and help you drop 15 pounds in one bite. Everyone has the right to decide what they want to spend their money on, but luckily there are registered dietitians like Lam working to guide lower-income consumers along the right path – away from trendy superfoods and towards a balanced diet.

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