One of the single most important questions out there regarding health is this: Can we eat our way back to optimal health? If you choose to make the decision to change your health by changing your diet, most people would probably agree that you could start by eliminating simple carbohydrates, sugars and foods we know to have zero nutritional value. In exchange you’d add clean sources of protein, fruits and green vegetables. If simply changing your diet were the answer, then why is the nutritional supplement industry a billion-dollar business? If you are being honest with yourself and you’re truly eating a healthy diet, you shouldn’t need to add a handful of vitamin pills to your breakfast. Changing agricultural strategies have left large tracts of soil almost completely absent of nutrients. This, combined with modern farming practices have left our food with almost no nutritional value. It hasn’t always been like this, but the bottom line is that our fruits and vegetables lack the nutrition that was at one time a cornerstone of our dietary needs.
It’s impossible to place blame for this phenomenon on any single event. A problem this big doesn’t pop up overnight. It took place over years and years as the demand for higher yields grew and farmers saw profit margins increase. Maybe it was greed or a growing population and the pressure to keep produce sections in stores filled. Somewhere along the way however, a large number of farmers began playing by a different set of rules from the ones that had been handed down to them from the generations of farmers that came before. The major change was the consistency and intensity at which the fields were now being worked. Traditional farming had set up fields in grid systems, allowing one section to grow crops while giving the previous area a break. Like this, the soil could recondition itself and naturally replenish itself with the minerals and nutrients that the plants and, ultimately, people so desperately need to maintain optimal health. Each harvest sees that season’s crop take more of the nutrients from the soil until there is literally nothing left. While some farmers realized the problems that came with overworking their fields, they began to add nutrients back into the soil in order to maintain productivity but, more often than not, what they put back wasn’t equal to what was originally there. On top of that, they would often pick and choose what to replenish the soil with, leaving nutritional gaps in their produce, which carried over to the consumer.
Recently, there have been a handful of studies conducted both in England and the United States aimed at comparing nutrient data collected in the 1950s and 60s to the current numbers. One British study concluded that calcium content was down by one fifth in modern vegetables compared to its counterparts grown in the 1960s. The United States studies also found lower percentages of vitamin C, iron and riboflavin in the vegetables tested, while other nutrient levels were the same and others increased. Regardless of the data collected, the results are still inconclusive. The reason for this is that any piece of dataused as evidence to either support or disprove nutrient depletion in soil cannot be identified as the main factor because of the number of variables involved – from the testing methods to the wide range of locations from which samples were taken.
Whether or not our soils are deficient of nutrients, there is another factor that could just as easily explain the reason for the lack of nutrients in our fruits and vegetables. The simple explanation for this is that farmers started growing and breeding vegetables and fruits that would improve their bottom line. It’s not hard to see why this transition from focusing on nutritional value to generating profit took place. Farming turned into big business and the growing strategies changed from focusing on nutrition to farming with the intent of increasing yields, cutting time off harvests and increasing resistance to disease and insects. These factors became more important over providing the consumer with a nutritionally dense, healthy product. The blame can be spread around and it’s easy to see the argument to increase profit margins. Sadly, the general public wasn’t paying attention and farms across the United States and the world got away with this for decades. There are still plenty of farms that are still practicing this “profit over product” practice.
This is both the good news and the bad news. These practices are going on right in front of us and they are no doubt connected to the current health crisis we are seeing. The good news is people are waking up and demanding change. As the focus on nutrition comes back to the forefront, farmers are taking note and are back to concentrating on boosting nutritional value in the foods they are growing. From tracking down plant strains that were similar to those grown fifty years ago to replenishing soil with the proper amounts of minerals and nutrients, we should continue to see an increase in nutritional values in our fruits and vegetables. It is up to us as consumers to educate ourselves, and to demand higher standards in our foods. The best way to increase nutrition in our foods is to use the leverage we have in our back pockets. Demand well-rounded nutrition by only buying fruits and vegetables that provide us with the nutritional content that we so desperately need.