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The Real Story of Kale

Is kale really a superfood?

Key points

  • Kale is often described as a superfood.
  • While kale is nutrient-dense and trendy, it's not "super."
  • You can eat other vegetables without guilt if you don't like kale.
Yulia von Einstein/Shutterstock
Source: Yulia von Einstein/Shutterstock

I hate kale.

I don’t think that most people like kale. In fact, I think people lie and say they like kale to seem virtuous.

I know that kale is nutrient-dense. In fact, I’m sure I’ve called it a “superfood” at least once in something I’ve written. What I really mean is that it’s super bitter, super tough, and super hard to chew and swallow.

The first time I heard about kale was when I was breastfeeding my daughter. This was in 2007 – not that long ago but also a million years ago. Born 12 weeks early, before a sucking reflex had developed (and before my breasts had begun to produce milk), my daughter’s health – and life – were uncertain. I was told both that breastfeeding her might be impossible and that breastfeeding her could be life-saving. I met with the hospital’s lactation consultant.

This is when kale came onto my radar. In order to produce milk and feed my 2.5-pound child, I needed to get my hands on some kale. “What is kale?” I asked. (Kale was not sold next to the lettuce in 2007, at least not at the grocery stores I frequented. A review of the scientific literature suggests that kale started to gain attention in the late 1990s.) The lactation consultant told me that kale was used as “décor” in the produce section of grocery stores. The curly, leafy greens were used to surround the apples and peaches and edible foods. In other words, kale itself was not conceptualized as edible.

To this day, I am not sure if I was supposed to eat the kale or stuff it in my nursing bra. I was practically living in the neonatal intensive care unit and I did not have the bandwidth to figure out my kale dilemma. After all, how did one buy grocery store décor? Was I supposed to steal the kale? If I bought the apples adjacent to the kale, could I just swipe a few leaves of it?

Fortunately, kale was not the only option for facilitating a milk supply. But, that’s a story for a different day. (My daughter was breastfed for most of a year and she’s a healthy teenager today.)

The point of this story is that, just as there are fashion trends, there are food trends. Kale has received attention for years now, but other food trends will come and go alongside it: Açai. Dragon fruit. Avocado. Miso. Turmeric. Matcha. Arugula. Hemp seeds. Seitan. Hummus. Beets. There are so many amazing foods, and some of them you’ll enjoy and some you won’t. Eating this year’s food fashions doesn’t make you superhuman.

Foods are really only super if you enjoy them. A recent scientific evaluation of the claim that kale is a superfood concluded that it is not actually any more nutritious than other cruciferous vegetables. So don’t let anyone trick you into eating grocery store décor – unless you think it tastes delicious and you can’t get your hands on some broccoli.

More from Charlotte Markey Ph.D.
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