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Interview with Dr. Ainhoa Magrach

📷 University of the Basque Country

Journalist: Solene Delumeau

Solene: Welcome to SciSection. I’m Solene, your journalist for this week’s episode. For today’s interview we are in Spain with Dr. Ainhoa Magrach. Thank you for being here, could you briefly introduce yourself?

Ainhoa: Thank you for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’m an ecologist, and I study how human activities and global change affect the functioning of natural ecosystems. So I work particularly on interactions between species, with pollination being one of the things I study most. So I’m interested in basic research related to pollinators, but also on their contribution to agriculture. I have a part of my research where I focus on how to make agriculture more sustainable.

Solene: I discovered your research about superfoods in an article about their impacts. Is there a scientific definition of what a superfood is, or is it just a word that’s used for marketing?

Ainhoa: The definition is not very clear, there’s not much research around superfoods, but they’re thought to be a type of functional food that have some sort of superior nutritional qualities. Different superfoods have different qualities, and as opposed to other functional foods where their qualities are a result of them being enhanced or altered in some way, superfoods have these properties in a natural way.

Solene: The examples that you give in your study are coconut, avocado, acai, quinoa, cacao and almonds. What do these all have in common that categorise them as superfoods?

Ainhoa: Each of them has different qualities, some have essential amino acids, others have vitamins. Acai for example is rich in antioxidants. Each of them have different qualities but they all have them naturally, so the raw fruits of products have these properties by themselves.

Solene: Most of the consumers of superfoods are in North America and Europe. Do you think the fact that these superfoods are usually grown far away from where they are consumed is something that makes them look more exotic, which helps them be marketable?

Ainhoa: Yeah, I think definitely the fact that they come from far away places, from places that in many cases are hotspots for biodiversity gives them this aura. People tend to think that the way they were produced is more natural, or more sustainable. That there has been little or no technological intervention to produce these foods. In many cases they are also associated with indigenous people who have used these superfoods for millennia and have coexisted with these products for a very long time.

Solene: Superfoods are usually associated with nature and sustainability, can you explain why the rising demand for superfoods is unsustainable?

Ainhoa: Anything for which there is a great demand cannot be very sustainable, and superfoods are just one more example.

Ainhoa: The level of demand for some of these products, for example coconut, and the different ways in which we consume it from coconut oil, to coconut water, to coconut milk- this obviously has an impact in the areas of origin of these products. Because there’s way more demand, there has to be an increase in the production, and this in many cases is done at the expense of transforming natural habitats and by intensifying the productivity of these crops. So in the case of acai, it comes from a palm that grows naturally in the floodplains of the Amazon and people have consumed it for a very long time. But now because the demand is so huge, there are plantations of this palm, So they are chopping down other trees to make space for more palms to produce more acai fruits. This means that it’s starting to be a monoculture in some areas, and scientific studies have shown that it has an impact on the diversity of bird species in these areas. So there are cascading effects for the flora and the fauna in the origin places.

Solene: Is it true that exploiting superfoods in this way can cause their nutritional value to be decreased?

Ainhoa: This depends on the case, and there aren’t many studies on the actual nutritional qualities on many of these superfoods. In the case of quinoa for example, there are about twenty commercial varieties that have been planted at some point in time, but now 90% of the production comes from just four of these varieties. So we don’t know if the nutritional qualities are better in these flour varieties, or if we are growing them because they grow faster or have other properties that make them be favoured by farmers. In many cases, intensification also goes through a reduction of the diversity of varieties that we have. Maybe we are not choosing those that have the best nutritional qualities.

Solene: Do you think the increasing number of people with plant based diets, like vegetarians and vegans, has boosted the superfood industry?

Ainhoa: I don’t think it’s vegans and vegetarians only that are consuming these sorts of products, I think a lot of people who consume meat also consume superfoods. For example like I said earlier in the case of coconut, there are all these different options in which we consume them. I think a lot of people that don’t necessarily have a vegan or vegetarian diet are consuming these products.

Solene: We hear quite often that reducing our consumption of meat and dairy products is the best way to reduce the environmental impact of our diets- how would you compare this to the impacts of superfoods?

Ainhoa: The scale here is quite different, superfoods are consumed in smaller quantities than meat or dairy products. But what I think is for consumers to be aware of the origin of the foods they consume and the impacts they have on the environment. Consumers need to be more conscious of where the products they consume come from and how they were produced. Be it meat, or be it superfoods.

Solene: I’m sure many of our listeners consume superfoods, is there a way for us to still be able to consume them in a more sensible way?

Ainhoa: There are certifications for some of these crops, for example cacao in its different forms, and for coconut- but not so much for other products. Certifications also have their problems, but if you want to consume these products it would be better to buy those that have been certified in some way. I think we need to work more on certifications and on how we actually check that the things you need to do to get the certifications are being met all of the time, during the whole process. This is difficult, but it’s something we need to work on.

Solene: And finally, what is the most important message you would give to our listeners about this topic?

Ainhoa: I would say to listeners that we as consumers need to be responsible for our food choices, and that we need to think before we buy anything.

Ainhoa: We have to know the origin of products. I don’t know how it works in Canada, but in the European Union whenever we go to a supermarket we know the origin of that product. So yesterday I was at the supermarket and I was going to buy apples, and there were three different varieties on sale. One came from Uruguay, one from Chile, and the other came from Spain. So I decided to buy the ones that came from Spain because they have a smaller carbon footprint. I think we need to pay special attention to where the products we consume come from, and try to consume seasonal products. We tend to want to consume everything at all times during the year. We want tomatoes all year round, but tomatoes just don’t happen naturally all year. So we need to try to consume them just when they’re available naturally, grown as close to us as possible, and try to shift our diet accordingly.

Solene: That brings us to the end of today’s episode, thank you so much for joining us today. And to our listeners, make sure you check out our podcast for the latest interviews!


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