There’s an old saying that “things get better with age” – so with our advancements in science and technology and our knowledge about farming in general, the expectation would rightfully be that the food we eat nowadays should be richer in nutrients than they were before.
However, a landmark study carried out by Donald David and his team in the University of Texas in December 2004 that studied nutritional data collected by the US Department of Agriculture in both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different fruit and vegetables found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2 and vitamin C over the past half of a century.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that the carrot I eat today has little nutrition in it (especially compared to some of the other less healthy foods I eat), it is true that fruit and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today.
So… why is this?
The truth is, there’s a huge focus on yield to feed a growing and hungry population – a population that wants fast food. There is increasing pressure on farmers to grow more, and also to grow consistent looking food for aesthetic and logistical purposes as set by large supermarket chains.
Agricultural practices have, therefore, evolved to improve traits rather than nutrition. This includes size, growth rate, pest resistance and climate adaptability. According to David, “efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly, but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth”.
There is also less acreage dedicated to farmland. As a result, soil is being reused and replanted over and over again – not giving the land a chance to restore. This eventually leads to soil depletion.
Higher yields have also helped control fruit and vegetable prices so that consumers are able to spend less of their income on food. In real dollars, it costs about half as much to grow produce now as it did in 1950.
So what should we do?
The bottom line remains the same. Fruit and vegetables are some of the healthiest, most nutrition dense foods that you can put into your system. You should be eating lots of lots of them.
However, in order to get the most “bang for your buck” in terms of nutritional value, perhaps consider the following:
Get to know your farmers: The key to healthier produce is healthier soil. Alternating fields between growing seasons to give land time to restore would be one important step. Also, forgoing pesticides and fertilizers in favour of organic growing methods is good for the soil, the produce and its consumers. For example, it would be to your advantage to check whether your produce is spray free.
Buy local: Produce loses some nutrients after harvesting, so try to buy them as close to picking time as possible. Local markets are a great place to meet up with your local farmers. By buying local, you’ll also be able to bypass a lot of the handling and waiting time involved in the logistics lines of larger supermarket chains. Furthermore, you’ll notice that the produce available in local markets are more imperfect than your usual supermarket variety. In other words, you can rest assured that the farming practices your produce has undergone have been less interfered with in order to maximize the aesthetics, rather than the nutritional value of the produce.
Get savvy with your eyes: Check out the colour of the different produce you purchase from local markets versus the produce you purchase from supermarkets. Do they look the same? Deeper, darker colours signify a higher level of nutrients. Let’s think back to Blog 1 – Eating the Rainbow. Scientifically, the various colours in fruits and vegetables are caused by specific phytonutrients, which are natural chemicals that help protect plants from germs, bugs, the sun’s harmful rays and other threats. The variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables have enormous healing powers. By feeding our bodies a variety of colours, it therefore means we have access to more of these healing powers and hopefully better protection against nasties like inflammation, heart disease, organ deterioration, lowered immunity or memory loss.
Get savvy with your tongue: Similar to my point above, you should notice a difference in taste between a product that is high in nutrients, compared to one that is not. I’ve honestly tasted apples that taste like water. On the other hand, I’ve had some of the juiciest, sweetest apples around. Taste will be derived from the nutrients that these plants absorb from the soil. If they have been grown in nutrient-depleted soil, chances are, they will taste like the water they have been watered with, and not much more. It’s also a good idea to chat with your farmers when you are at the markets to understand how they grow their crops.
Honestly, even with all the tips above, the fruits and vegetables we have the easiest access to isn’t going to change. While I definitely recommend getting to a local farmers market or joining a food co-op that purchases directly from the local farmer’s markets (what I do), sometimes the supermarket variety is going to be the best we can do… and that’s okay.
As long as fruits and vegetables make up the bulk of your diet, you can be assured you’re getting some form of nutrients. It may not be as nutrient rich as you’d like but maybe that just means you’ll have to eat more of it!
Have a wonderful week ahead, guys!