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Say no to goji berries – and hello to these cheap superfoods

Isn’t it mad how all the 'best’ superfoods seem to cost the most? Don’t believe the hype

Pity the poor goji berry. For hundreds of years it grew in the foothills of the Tibetan mountains and formed a small part of the diet of many people across Asia but was largely unnoticed by the rest of the planet.

But then, no more than two decades ago, it started hitting the headlines in this part of the world as food faddists discovered it and started making all sorts of outlandish claims about the red berry’s health properties.

Makers of some goji-related products suggested that the berry and its juices could treat and prevent cancer, help people shed pounds, take years off them and make them fitter.

It all sounded great, and all that was missing was any real scientific proof. The hysteria reached a sort of peak when a book was published that resurfaced ancient claims that a Chinese herbalist from the 17th – or possibly 16th – century called Li Qing Yuen had lived to the ripe old age of 256 thanks to his daily diet of the berries.


Pricewatch was caught up in the madness of the crowd as we rushed out and bought a bag of the berries. They were disappointingly useless in stripping years off us, they tasted kind of vile and they were hideously expensive. It wasn’t a happy time.

While the hysteria died down, goji berries – and products made with goji berries – are to be found selling at high prices across the developed world, with those marketing the product still pointing to all the wonders it can do.

The goji is not alone and high-priced superfoods are everywhere. It’s not a new phenomenon; people have been chasing food-fuelled bandwagons to hop on for centuries, searching for the silver bullets to help them live longer.

The modern idea of the food fad probably started in 1558 with an Italian called Luigi Cornaro. In that year he published The Art of Living Long, where he outlined his secret to a long if not-entirely-happy-sounding life.

His big secret was not to overeat, and initially he confined himself to 400g of food a day before deciding that was excessive, so he reduced his food intake to a single egg, which he washed down with a litre of wine. It was a pretty unusual diet by any modern measure, but it appeared to work for him and he lived well into his 90s. Although he was probably drunk most of the time.

Ketchup medicine

Pricewatch’s favourite historical superfood was invented in the 19th century by a doctor from Ohio called John Bennett. He declared that tomatoes could be used to treat diarrhoea, bilious attacks and dyspepsia (that’s indigestion to most of us).

What made his claim so shocking among his intended audience was that not more than two generations earlier tomatoes had been widely viewed as the devil’s fruit.

Dr Bennett partnered with a snake-oil salesman by the name of Archibald Miles and they started selling Dr Miles’s Compound of Extract Tomato. It promised buyers that it would cure jaundice, headaches, biliousness, rheumatism, coughs and the common cold.

Even though they don't make headlines, many of the foods that are actually super are very cheap

The new superfood sold by the truckload, although it did not cure any of those ailments. Today Dr Miles’s Compound of Extract Tomato is better known as ketchup, and while it goes great with chips and is surprisingly healthy, it will not cure your biliousness no matter how much of it you eat.

Last week Pricewatch googled the phrase “goji berry benefits”, and the first match (and many more after that) suggested it “may have anti-ageing benefits, may help prevent cancer growth, may improve blood-sugar control, may boost energy levels, may help you lose weight and may improve cholesterol levels.”

That is a lot of benefits – and a lot of “mays” – and probably explains why goji berries are quite pricey. A 100g bag of Tesco goji berries sell for €3.50. By contrast, a 1kg bag of Tesco carrots costs 99 cent.

That is 35 times cheaper. It is mad how all the best superfoods seem to cost the most. Chia seeds, blueberries, kelp, oysters, green tea – in addition to containing the ingredients to help you live for ever – are all super-expensive.

Keep it cheap

Even though they don’t make headlines, many of the foods that are actually super are very cheap. Sarah Keogh is a no-nonsense Dublin-based dietitian and nutritionist and is dismissive of the whole notion of superfoods. “I don’t think there is anything that is really a superfood, although some foods do have more nutrition then others.”

She says foods such as goji berries sometimes make inroads into our consciousness because they are new and because journalists can’t be running the same story over and over again by continuously tell readers that a varied diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, dairy, and wholegrains is a good idea.

Many people have turned away from dairy products such as milk and yogurt and most of the time people are avoiding them unnecessarily

“Now and then we hear talk of some really silly superfoods. I remember hearing cauliflower being described as a superfood. And black pudding. Cauliflower is a perfectly good vegetable and a good source of fibre, but there’s not a whole lot more there by way of nutrition. And black pudding is not a bad source of iron, but it tends to be very salty, so to classify either as a superfood is ridiculous,” she says. “There is nothing that is essentially more nutrition-rich about a goji berry than can be found in many Irish fruits,” she adds.

“On the other hand kale is full of nutrition and probably deserves the title of a superfood. So do almonds. Carrots are brilliant and very high in vitamin A. Oats are very high in fibre, a type of fibre that lowers cholesterol. Tomatoes are excellent and very high in lycopene, which can help in reducing heart disease. Even the poor banana is great and is a very good source of potassium.”

She also points to dairy products. “Many people have turned away from dairy products such as milk and yogurt and most of the time people are avoiding them unnecessarily, and I fear that we will have serious problems with our bones in the next 20 years or so.”

She says studies have repeatedly suggested that not only does dairy not cause cancer, but the people who consume it get less bowel cancer.

When it comes to potatoes, they are also full of nutrition as long as the skin is eaten.

Keogh says that to get the best out of food, people need to eat fruit and vegetables, oily fish – particularly mackerel and salmon, with tinned varieties being almost as high in nutrition as fresh fish – nuts and seeds and wholegrains.


One of the common strands of all the foods mentioned by Keogh is that they are cheap. That prompted us to go in search of a top 10. This is what we found.

Mackerel: An oily fish loaded with protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, selenium and iron. Two smoked mackerel fillets will feed two and cost no more than €2.50 – and if you buy at the height of the mackerel season you can get it fresh for a lot less.

Salmon: Another oily fish that even those who are not mad about fish can eat. It is high in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids and loads of B vitamins and selenium and more besides. It is good for the brain and the heart. Half a kilogram of fresh salmon – enough to feed four people costs around €7, while tinned salmon is almost as nutritiously rich as the fresh variety and costs much less.

Almonds: This nut is a real superfood and one that is high in monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, copper, magnesium and protein. They also have high levels of bioactive molecules such as fibre, phytosterols, vitamins, other minerals and antioxidants. A 60g snack pack in Tesco costs €1.60.

Kale: This contains vitamins A, K, C and a range of the Bs. It also has manganese, calcium, copper, potassium, iron and phosphorus. It is high in beta carotene, antioxidants, great for all round organ health and particularly the heart. It is good for the skin and mind and a kilogram of kale costs less than a fiver.

Carrots: The humble carrot is loaded with vitamin A, antioxidants and other vitamins, minerals and fibre as well as beta carotene. A kilogram of carrots can easily be found for less than €1, making it one of the cheapest superfoods on the market.

Oats: Oats are loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidant plant compounds including manganese, phosphorus, Magnesium, Copper, Iron, Zinc, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B5 and more. They are also loaded with beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre which reduces cholesterol, improves the health of your gut and makes you feel fuller. They are also very low calorie. And very cheap. You can buy a kilo of oats for less than €2.

Red peppers: These are loaded with vitamins C, A and B6 and packed with antioxidants as well as lycopene, which is also found in abundance in tomatoes. And like tomatoes, peppers are also very low in calories, so you can eat as many as you want. They contain several phytochemicals and carotenoids, particularly beta carotene, with all its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. The lutein can protect the eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration. A red pepper costs less than 70 cent.

Potatoes: By eating the humble spud – with the skin on – you give yourself vitamin C, fibre, protein, carbs, iron and potassium. There are antioxidants and good starches, and it can be incredibly filling. The key is to eat them skin and all. And the price? Less than €1 a kilo.

Bananas: A single banana costs 22 cent in Tesco and will provide you with vitamin C and manganese, which are both good for your skin. There is potassium in bananas, which is good for heart health. Bananas can aid digestion and give you energy minus fats and cholesterol.

Pumpkin seeds: These seeds are rich in antioxidants, iron, zinc, magnesium and many other nutrients. You get fibre, protein, vitamins, good fats. And how much are they? A 150g bag which could see you through five days can be bought in Tesco for €1.50.