Nutritional Inflation?!?! Who’d a Thunk it?

by
Rashida Ghauri, MD, ABIHM
Sarah Emslie
Baber Ghauri, MD, FHM, FACP, ABIHM

Introduction

We all understand that the value of the dollar is based on the relationship between the number of actual dollars in circulation and the number of precious resources we have in our federal reserves. When there are too many dollars floating around, economists call it inflation and suddenly your dollar is worth less today than yesterday. There is clear evidence that a similar thing is also happening with our food supply! Food today does not nearly have the same value as it did twenty years ago. We’re not talking about Twinkies here; we’re talking about apples, carrots, and other whole foods. As an example of this, most obese people are nutritionally deficient, causing them to seek more nutritional value through more eating. Depending on the sugar and fat content of what they eat, they are usually entering the vicious cycle that leads to metabolic syndrome X, diabetes, and serious heart disease.
Nutritional inflation is something that most of us have never heard of and the purpose of this post is to help us understand the lethality of this phenomenon. There are several factors contributing to nutritional inflation:
  1. Selective breeding
  2. Crop management
  3. Modern farming methods
  4. Supply-chain management

Selective Breeding

One of the most important and furthest reaching factors in the loss of nutritional value of fruits and vegetables over the years is the selective breeding that humans have performed on plants. Tracing different crops back through history to their wild ancestors reveals that farmers always chose the sweetest and best tasting varieties to begin planting on farms, understandable when nutrition was not as understood as it is now. Studies of the nutritional content of plants now show that the most bitter and sour varieties have the most significant nutritional content in the form of compounds called phytonutrients. These compounds have been shown to fight cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and many other modern scourges. However, since our brains are wired to want sweeter, starchier food, we’ve often bred these compounds out of our crops. For example, Native Americans gathered wild dandelions in abundance in the springtime.  These plants have seven times more phytonutrients than our modern spinach. Their bitter taste made them not widely consumed and have never truly been domesticated in the way that other crops have because of it. Despite the low demand, it makes sense that they sell at premium cost at most grocery stores underlining the idea that the market cost of most food is directly proportional to its nutritional value.

Crop Management

A more recent culprit of nutrient loss can be found in the management and development of new crops. With the advent of refrigeration, crops could suddenly be transported across the country and still arrive fresh for consumption.  In addition, new farming equipment allowed for mega-farming producing never before seen yields. This change in the way that farming was done led to a push for higher yield crops, whether through selective breeding of the plants themselves, or the use of fertilizers and pesticides. These higher yielding crops have been consistently associated in studies with a downward trend in nutrient levels. In a study done in 1979 (Hughes et al.), raspberry plants were grown in soil that naturally contained phosphorus. One group was given no additional phosphorus-based fertilizer, and the other two groups were given increasing amounts of 22 ppm and 44 ppm. Although the additional fertilizer created significant increases in the size of the plants themselves, it also caused a drop in almost every mineral that was measured in the plant, with the one exception of phosphorus. The fertilizer created more of the plant itself, but it was less nutritious.
Figure 1. Dilution effects of phosphorus fertilization in red raspberry plants; 1, 22, and 44 ppm added to soil containing 12 ppm (Hughes et al., 1979; dry weight basis). The relative plant dry weight was respectively, 1:1.4:2.2.

Modern farming methods

It isn’t just what humans are putting into the soil that’s detrimental to the nutrition of our food; it’s also what’s being taken out. Modern farming methods are not kind to the soil, farmers often plant the same crop in the same field year after year, stripping the soil of its nutrients and forcing the addition of more chemical fertilizers in future years. Rotating different crops through different fields, or allowing fields to lay fallow for a year or two in between plantings gives the soil time to recuperate its lost nutrients. Restructuring the way that modern agriculture is practiced, and employing more organic growing methods may be one of the keys to recapturing some of the lost nutrients in plants.

Supply-chain management

What happens to crops after they’re harvested is also essential. Before refrigeration was possible, crops were picked at the peak of ripeness and delivered straight to their destination, and they would be on the tables of the people who purchased or picked them within a few days at the most. Sadly except for our local farmer’s markets (and those who have their gardens at home), this is not the case anymore. Food is picked weeks before it is ripe so that it will not spoil in transport, and is often left to languish in holding warehouses for yet more weeks where it is force ripened with ethylene gas before it ever sees the light of a grocery store display. So while the tomatoes you buy at the store may look perfect and red, being taken off of their vine and out of the sun while unripe dramatically reduces their nutritional value.

Solutions

So with all of these factors out of the general consumer’s control, this article may seem to paint a bleak picture of nutrition in modern times. However, it’s important to remember that there are things that we can do to ensure that we get the most nutrition possible out of our food.
  1. Cutting out as much processed food as possible from one’s diet is a great place to start.  Watch this How It’s Made classic on the 21+ steps it takes to produce household sugar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWl141Bu7fc
  2. Shopping organic or at farmer’s markets when possible is another quick way to get more nutrition in your food. Though not possible for everyone, even the most antiquated grocers understand the value of selling organic and whole foods.
  3. Picking fruits and vegetables from the store with the darkest colors is a great way to ensure greater phytonutrient content even if they aren’t grown organically.
  4. For those who have space, growing your own vegetables in the backyard or pots is the best way to ensure the greatest nutritional content in your fruits and vegetables. You, the farmer, have complete control over the variety, harvest time, fertilizer, and pesticide use, all factors that have a considerable influence on the nutritional content of your harvest!
  5. Ask your grocer!  Even if they don’t know the answer this time, chances are they will the next time.  The more we share this knowledge, the better we’ll eat!!

With the proper knowledge, you can make better choices about your food and help improve the long-term health and wellness of yourself and your loved ones.  The most important thing to remember from this post is that the COST of food is usually directly proportional to its nutritional value.

Want to learn more?  Here is a short video about the nutritional value of many commonly sold foods by the wonderful Dr. Michael Greger, MD, http://nutritionfacts.org.

References

  1. Davis, Donald R. “Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence?” HortScience. American Society for Horticultural Science, Feb. 2009. Web. 2 Aug. 2016.
  2. Herro, Alana. “Crop Yields Expand But Nutrition Is Left Behind.” World Watch. Eye on Earth, n.d. Web. 2 Aug. 2016.
  3. “Leading Causes of Death.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 Apr. 2016. Web. 02 Aug. 2016.
  4. Ray, C. Claiborne. “A Decline in the Nutritional Value of Crops.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2015. Web. 02 Aug. 2016.
  5. Robinson, Jo. “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 May 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2016.
  6. Scheer, Roddy, and Doug Moss. “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?” Scientific American. EarthTalk, 27 Apr. 2011. Web. 02 Aug. 2016.

One thought on “Nutritional Inflation?!?! Who’d a Thunk it?”

  1. Amazing article; learned a lot about how unhealthy our “healthy foods” really are. Can’t wait to learn more!

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