Our Fruits and Vegetables are Losing Their Nutritional Value

Because of the efforts of scientists and crop breeders, many farmers have doubled or tripled their yields per acre of fruits, grains and vegetables.  So yes, we are now able to feed more people on the same amount of soil but unintentionally the nutritional value of this food is eroding away.

Our Fruits and Vegetables are Losing Their Nutritional Value

Our Fruits and Vegetables are Losing Their Nutritional Value

A number of recent studies indicate that our fruits and vegetables are losing their nutritional value. The past several decades have been marked by many advances to increase food production in this country.  New varieties have been developed that grow faster, grow larger, reach maturity earlier, resist disease, absorb synthetic fertilizers better, ship better, and grow closer together. With these advances crop yields have soared, but sadly no one was paying any attention to what it does to the plant’s ability to deliver its nutrients to consumers.

Because of the efforts of scientists and crop breeders, many farmers have doubled or tripled their yields per acre of fruits, grains and vegetables.  So yes, we are now able to feed more people on the same amount of soil but unintentionally the nutritional value of this food is eroding away.  We are not talking about genetically modified foods; our foods have been naturally selected for increased yield.

This decline in nutrients was first reported over 15 years ago by English researcher Anne-Marie Mayer, PhD, who noticed the dwindling mineral concentrations of 20 United Kingdom based crops from the 1930s to the 1980s. More recent studies confirm it is happening in every country as they strive to increase crop yields.

Donald Davis, a former researcher with the University of Texas Biochemical Institute, led an effort that analyzed 43 fruits and vegetables during the period 1950 through 1999.  His report, using USDA Data, found, for example, in 1950 broccoli had about 130 milligrams of calcium, whereas today it contains only 48 milligrams. His report attributes these losses to agriculture’s desire to grow bigger vegetables, and to have them reach maturity earlier, and to have them grow closer together. The very things that speed growth and early maturity – selective breeding and the increased use of synthetic fertilizers – are decreasing the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients from the soil and synthesize them.

Davis’ research also found that higher-yielding crops also decrease the concentrations of cancer-fighting chemicals — known as phytonutrients or phytochemicals. Food scientists have identified the benefits of only a few of these. “We are beginning to understand how valuable these phytochemicals actually are,” Davis said. “We can only guess what the loss of these from high-yield farming will mean to the health of the consumer.”

In another research effort, Washington State University professor Stephen Jones and researcher Kevin Murphy indicate the same is happening in our country’s wheat fields. Their conclusion shows that today’s modern wheat has less nutritional value than 100 years ago, and most of this is related to decreased protein.  Today you would have to eat twice as many slices of bread to get the same nutritional value.  Again, none of the breeders and growers looked at nutritional value, they were singularly working to increase yield per acre.

Fully 25% of the wheat in the world comes from the United States. In this country we get much of our nutrients from bread by making it into a hamburger, a Panini or by spreading peanut butter on our morning toast. In poor and developing countries the use our wheat in their diet may be bread alone.  The loss of wheat’s nutrients could be a serious health concern.

Researchers agree that their findings are troublesome.  But they also indicate consumers should not be discouraged.  Fruits and vegetables remain our best source for healthy nutrients. We absolutely need them in our diet even if they are not as nutritious as they were for our grandparents. But there are shopping decisions we can make that will help us find the most nutritious products.

Use these tips to seek the most nutrient-packed produce:

Consider Size. Often more nutrients are packed into smaller varieties. Select blueberries, cherry tomatoes and micro-greens. Avoid the monstrous tomato bred to ship well.  It does not taste as good either.

Look for Old Varieties. Heirloom varieties, foods produced from seed savers and other lower yielding varieties have not likely gone through the extensive breeding that lowers nutrient value.

Seek out Strong Colors.  Research shows that the brighter the color the more nutrients it typically packs.  Pick out red lettuce rather than ice berg. Select bright orange carrots, or even better, red carrots.

• Fresh Is Better.  As soon as produce is harvested it starts to lose nutritional value. If your vegetable or fruit comes from another hemisphere it will have lost much of its already depleted nutrients during shipping.  Also, the nutrient value may never get very high because in order to get it to you without rotting it was probably picked green. Again, shop at farm stores or farmer’s markets and select seasonal produce that has been ripened “on the vine.”  

Organic is best. Scientific research evidences that organically grown crops hold more nutrients. Organic foods have more minerals, vitamins and they are significantly richer in other natural health-boosters. Professor Alyson Mitchell, of the University of California, Davis, found “By avoiding synthetic fertilizers, organic farmers put more stress on plants, and when plants experience stress, they protect themselves by producing phytochemicals.”  Phytochemicals appear to play an important cancer inhibiting role.

It’s not all bad news however. In his study Davis indicates that not all crops are in decline. Specifically, he found that a few products are actually gaining in nutritional value. For instance, consumers want their carrots bright orange.  Plant breeders found that by intensifying the color they also induced an increase in vitamin A.  When consumers wanted a brighter red to the inside of a water melon it was accompanied by an increase in lycopene, which helps fight macular degeneration and may have cancer inhibiting properties. When marketers wanted sweeter pineapples, the increase in sugar also resulted in an increase in vitamin C.

These impressive results are just a side effect of trying to make specific crops more marketable. If as consumers we demand more nutrition in our foods, and if we make purchasing decisions that favor more nutritional products, it will happen. Now, eat your vegetables.

Learn about Beechwood Inn’s committment to high quality foods and heirloom varieties. https://beechwoodinn.ws/eco-commitment-and-food.html

By Chefs David and Gayle Darugh, Beechwood Inn