Most potatoes we eat today have 100 percent less vitamin A than potatoes did in the 1950s. One hundred percent. That may sound unbelievable, but it doesn’t end there.
An analysis of nutritional records done by Canada’s national newspaper found that potatoes also lost 57 percent of their vitamin C and iron, 50 percent of their riboflavin, 28 percent of their calcium, and 18 percent of their thiamine. Of the seven nutrients analyzed to determine nutrient density, only niacin levels increased in potatoes in the past 50-60 years.
This decline in nutrient density isn’t specific to potatoes. Broccoli in the 1950s had more calcium. Scientific American reported – shockingly — that it takes eight of today’s oranges to pony up the same amount of nutrients that one single orange had in the 1950s. What on earth is going on?
Nutrient density is the measurement of key nutrients in a predetermined amount of food. For example, the USDA’s “National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference” indicates that 100g of “tomatoes, red, ripe, raw, year round average” contains 237 mg of potassium, 1.2 g of fiber, and 833 IU of vitamin K. These numbers are averages, based on testing done on produce purchased around the country. Nevertheless, these averaged numbers help determine how nutrient-dense — how healthy — each type of food is. And it’s by comparing historic numbers with contemporary numbers that the decline in nutrient density can be tracked.
Agribusiness is called “agribusiness” for a reason: It’s about making money. And in its quest to make money, agribusiness has developed new varieties of vegetables, selecting for characteristics that impact the bottom line, rather than nutrient density. Cultivars are chosen for their disease resistance, suitability for the climate, maturity rate, high yields, and physical appearance.
Plants are growing bigger, but their ability to take up or process nutrients has not increased at a comparable rate. Also, as Scientific American points out, the high yields of commercial plants have a direct impact on nutrient density. It’s not unusual for commercially grown tomato plants to produce 100 tomatoes per plant. The plant itself is limited in how many nutrients it can take up and disperse among that many fruits.
Another problem that’s rooted in agribusiness is soil depletion. Intensive farming methods strip the soil of its nutrients. If the soil lacks nutrients, so too will the plants that grow in that soil. Just as the health of human beings depends on what they eat, the health (nutrient density) of vegetables depends on what they “eat” or absorb from the soil. The more nutrients they take up, the more nutrients their produce will have.
The only way to address soil depletion is to fertilize the soil. For agribusinesses that are not concerned with nutrient density, the high cost of fertilization may seem to be an unnecessary expense. But, as Scientific American points out, without re-mineralizing the soil, “each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.”
The term “pesticide” collectively includes substances that control pests and/or weeds, including insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Chemical pesticides are formulated to kill specific things, but once released into the soil, they also may kill beneficial microorganisms. Microbes are crucial to nutrient density because they recycle and release nutrients in the soil, which are then taken up by plants and distributed to the produce.
Once picked, vegetables start losing nutrients. Leafy greens lose their nutrients very quickly; some types of spinach may lose 90 percent of their vitamin C within 24 hours of being picked. While vegetables are in transport to grocery stores or sitting on grocery shelves, they continue to “respire;” that is, they continue to live by drawing from their nutrient stores. The longer the time between harvest and consumption, the more nutrients are used up during respiration.
Impact on Human Health
Insufficient nutrients may be one reason why we continue to crave food even after we’ve eaten full servings. And, some speculate that due to the decrease in nutrients, five to ten servings of fruit and vegetables daily is insufficient to meet our needs. Foods that are low in nutrient density may contribute to Type B malnutrition, which is prevalent in industrialized nations. While people with Type B malnutrition take in adequate calories and do not appear outwardly malnourished, the food they eat does not contain sufficient nutrients for health.
What Can We Do?
The solution? Plant a garden. Amend the soil with natural fertilizers. Besides producing healthier nutrient-dense produce, nutrient-dense soil creates a healthier plant. A healthier plant has:
- Increased pest and disease resistance.
- Higher and healthier yields.
- Produce that has more intense and complex flavor due to increased nutrients.
Soil that is rich in microorganisms and nutrients is good for plants — and good for us, too.
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