It is a hipster's paradise that we live in. In this day and age, it's perfectly acceptable to start your day with a chia seed smoothie, get your blood pumping with a session of piloxing (pilates/boxing), begin your grooming routine with a dab of beard oil and most notably, start putting quinoa in everything from your lunch to your face cream.
"Superfood is a marketing term used to describe foods that are nutrient powerhouses that pack large doses of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals," explains Iris Lau, a brand representative of Origins, known for its sustainable practices and plant-heavy skincare ingredients, such as spirulina, spinach and green tea.
One of the brand's star products, for example, is the Mega-Mushroom Skin Relief Soothing Treatment Lotion, which contains reishi (lingzhi) mushroom, rich in water-soluble polysaccharides, for its immune-system-boosting properties.
Just because something looks pretty splashed on an advertisement, however, doesn't mean that it translates well to the highly scientific world of skincare.
"The bright colours of many superfoods are often due to the presence of antioxidant compounds, and while they make these plants appealing, it's challenging to use them in cosmetics," says Cindy Angerhofer, Aveda's executive director of botanical research.
"Some superfoods, such as pomegranate, bilberry and turmeric, have [been subject to] more modern-era scientific research than others. The nutritional element [from ingestion] may not translate well to topical use for cosmetics, but a major benefit that may be realised through both ingestion and topical use is strong antioxidant activity," she says. Quality extracts of turmeric, pomegranate and amla, for example, can improve the appearance of skin, scalp and hair by protecting them from environmental aggressors, Angerhofer adds. Kiehl's is another skincare brand that has been on the forefront of this trend for many years, and its product descriptions often resemble vegan grocery lists in their high superfood contents.
"We have avocado oil in our Creamy Avocado Eye Treatment; argan oil in the Superbly Smoothing Argan Hair collection; and lentil extract in the Micro-Blur Skin Perfector, just to name a few," says Maria Yuen, the brand's Hong Kong education manager.
One of its latest offerings is a Nightly Refining Micro Peel, which uses "sustainably sourced quinoa husk extract" - a combination of words guaranteed to make hipsters drop their kale chips in excitement. Consumers are told that the quinoa is sustainably sourced, filtered and distilled to a pure and potent extract, which aids in surface cell turnover - the Holy Grail for youthful skin.
The natural ingredient hype is nothing new, but today's audience is savvier than ever, and brands have had to underline their claims with science, particularly when most consumers have done a fair amount of internet reading on how acai berries can aid in everything from muscle performance to weight loss.
"Superfoods were almost unknown to the public 10 years ago, but today they are part of the modern lifestyle of many consumers," says Christina Lykiardopoulou, the Hong Kong and UK country director for Apivita.
"They know about their positive effects and appreciate them in cosmetic products, where they're no longer just 'marketing-attractive', they are active ingredients - the bar has been raised."
Not all industry experts are fully on board.
Dr Joseph K. H. Wong, for example, a specialist in family medicine with a diploma in practical dermatology, is not convinced that these products offer sufficient evidence to support their heavily marketed claims.
"Many of the brands selling expensive skincare products cannot provide scientific proof of efficacy of their active ingredients … or even tell you what active ingredients they have used," he says. "A good active ingredient should have sound scientific proof of its efficacy in either stimulating the turnover of our epidermis for youthful skin, or increasing the production of collagen."
It's no surprise then, that skincare brands are doing their utmost to assure consumers of their transparency. Advertising campaigns are heavy on percentages and numerical details on the demographic make up of consumer panels, the number of weeks it took to see results, and a sprinkling of asterisks and fine print that elaborates on the balance of subjectivity and expert clinical evaluation.
"Nowadays, there are many more scientific research studies done at the molecular, genetic and transitional level for the skin physiology, measuring the real effect of nutrition on the skin or of food ingredients when applied externally," says Giota Dragani, head of research and development at Apivita.
"We can take advantage [of] cutting-edge technologies that allow us to achieve observable results upon topical application and to explain the biological mechanisms behind cell and tissue engineering," she says. "And these results are really amazing when it comes to superfoods - superfood components, when carefully introduced into cosmetics, can trigger several biological mechanisms related [to] the maintenance of good skin condition."
Consumers are eating it up. The pairing of natural foods and reassuring lab coats is a seductive combination, and whether or not they actually understand the numbers on the tin, there is a certain level of trust placed in big skincare brands, and the brands are careful not to lose that credibility.
"Since its inception in 1990, Origins has been searching for the most efficacious plants to create high-performance natural skincare products, which are tested multiple times for safety and performance," Lau says.
"Consumers nowadays are well-educated; they have a vested interest in a green diet, a green life, and they are increasingly alert when it comes to the ingredients in their skincare products," she says.
"They are pursuing that perfect balance between advanced technology and premium natural ingredients."
TASTE OF HEALTH
Here are some popular superfoods found in skincare:
Known for: Anti-inflammatory, hydrating qualities
Found in: Apivita's Radiance Natural Serum
Known for: Protein-richness, but Kiehl's scientists found that the discarded husks can be used as a great exfoliant
Found in: Kiehl's Nightly Refinining Micro Peel
Known for: Vitamin-richness, with firming, anti-ageing properties
Found in: Innisfree's Eco Science Lotion
Known for: Detoxing power - it's high in B vitamins, proteins and other nutrients
Found in: Origins' By All Greens Foaming Deep Cleansing Mask
Known for: Anti-inflammatory properties
Found in: Aveda's Invati collection and Invati Man