The magic label ‘superfood’ transforms any exotic item off the shelves.
1. Quinoa: (prounounced ‘keen-wah’)
is one of the newer superfoods on the block, and is a gluten-free alternative to couscous and pasta. Vegetarians embrace it because, unusually for grains, it contains lots of protein (up to 18 per cent).
It also contains essential amino acids, the fundamental building blocks of our tissues, and anti-inflammatory substances lab studies have linked to weight loss.
However, growing demand from Western foodies has put pressure on its sources in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. The region is threatened by a sharp decrease in soil fertility.
Because it is so valuable (£6.58 a kilogram at Waitrose), farmers now exclusively grow quinoa year after year to meet demand and have abandoned traditional methods of rotating crops to restore fertility and prevent erosion.
Its popularity has also made quinoa too expensive for native peoples, for whom it has been a staple for centuries. Now they are turning to cheaper Western junk food, causing more ill health in the developing world.
AIRMILES: 6,031 (from Bolivia)
2. Cacao (raw, refined cocoa): The Incas considered cacao the drink of gods.
Today, it is loved by health nuts for being ‘minimally processed’, and, because it doesn’t have any dairy added, it can be used in vegan recipes.
Pure cacao contains around four times as many cocoa beans as the same weight of normal chocolate or regular drinking chocolate (which have milk and sugar added).
However, this puts even more pressure on already hard-pushed cocoa-growing areas.
West Africa has historically produced much of the world’s cacao, but ageing trees, crop diseases, pests and extreme weather mean supplies are flagging. But production is expanding in South America.
Peru has seen a five-fold increase in production since 1990 — cacao companies have cleared thousands of hectares of unique and irreplaceable Amazon rainforest.
African countries including Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria have also suffered significant deforestation as plantations have spread.
AIRMILES: 3,171 (Ghana) or 4,014 (Peru)
3. Avocado: The only fruit with high levels of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids.
Avocado contains numerous vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, avocados are very high in fibre, which may lower the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, obesity, hypertension and diabetes. But like almonds, below, avocados demand huge amounts of water, and have been linked to unprecedented droughts where they are cultivated in Chile, Mexico and California.
In South America, production has rocketed, from 9,000 acres planted with avocado trees in 1993, to 71,000 acres in 2014.
Much of the cultivation is on the once-barren hillsides of Chile’s semi-arid central valley, where rainfall is minimal. But each acre of avocado trees needs a million gallons of water per year. To supply this, rivers are being drained and groundwater over-pumped — depriving people of drinking water.
AIRMILES: 7,406 (Chile) or 5,281 (California)
4. Almonds: Scientific studies suggest that eating almonds may lower levels of cholesterol in our blood, and increase levels of the antioxidant vitamin E.
The nuts are also a good source of copper, magnesium, and high quality protein. They are a favourite among healthy eaters because they can be pulped to make ‘almond milk’, which is low calorie and dairy-free.
California now produces 82 per cent of the world’s stocks. Each nut takes a gallon of water to produce. Across California’s Central Valley (an area almost the size of England), almond orchards stretch as far as the eye can see. The demand for water is given as a major cause of the region’s four-year drought and recent devastating — and deadly — wildfires.
AIRMILES: 5,281 (California)
5. Coconut: Healthy eating bloggers such as Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley rave about coconut.
Whether it’s vegan yoghurt and ice cream made from its creamy flesh, coconut water to drink, or coconut oil for frying.
As well as containing antibacterial and antiviral properties, aficionados claim the type of saturated fat in coconut is digested differently to other saturated fats so won’t clog your arteries or get converted into love handles if you eat too much. Mainstream dietitians, of course, say there’s little evidence for any of this.
Nevertheless, recent figures report that in the UK we now spend more than £100 million a year on coconut products. But because the trees become less productive as they age, more and more are planted to keep up with demand. Intensive cultivation in Indonesia, India and the Philippines is damaging soil quality and encouraging excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides that harm people’s drinking water.
Coconut farmers tend to be among the poorest people in the world. And few brands are ‘Fair Trade’ — which ensures small farmers get a fair wage — so many growers are vulnerable to low pay and high pressure from big exporters.
AIRMILES: 7,275 (Indonesia)
6. Pineapple: These contain many nutrients, vitamins, and minerals including potassium, manganese, calcium, vitamin C, beta carotene, thiamin, B6, and folate.
Pineapples are primarily grown in Costa Rica, where production has increased by nearly 300 per cent since 2000. Intensive farming — with its reliance on huge amounts of pesticides and fertilisers — has contaminated groundwater so badly that thousands now rely on government tankers for drinking supplies.
Health problems such as skin diseases, respiratory problems, gastric illnesses, nervous system disorders and birth defects have been reported.
Successive Costa Rican governments have tried to cut pesticide use. But environmental scientists say the problems persist and may be worsening.
In addition, pineapple work is often seasonal, with workers being hired for harvests and fired immediately afterwards. This keeps workers in constant fear of being blacklisted for protesting at poverty-level pay and poor working conditions.
AIRMILES: 5,419 (Costa Rica)
7. SOYBEANS: The protein levels in soybeans make it a boon for vegetarians. Soybeans are used for tofu, and soy milk, which is popular as an alternative to cow’s milk.
Huge swathes of land are required to make soybean-growing profitable, however. As a result ecosystems across Latin America are suffering from extreme deforestation.
Almost four million hectares (equivalent to more than five million football fields) of the Amazon, the Gran Chaco, and the Atlantic Forests are destroyed every year.
AIRMILES: 5,140 (Brazil)