Series on Nutritional Density

There have been a lot of changes to the American food supply in the last hundred years.

In 1901, the average American family spent 42% of their annual household income on food.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent more money on food than on housing, health care, or any other category.

Back then, local farms supplied most of the food people consumed.  Fruit was picked by hand at the peak of ripeness and delivered to town in horse-drawn carts.

Farmer Taking Produce to Town in San Ysidro, CA (photo courtesy sandiegohistory.org)

Farmer Taking Produce to Town in San Ysidro, CA (photo courtesy sandiegohistory.org)

The farmers of that day practiced traditional methods of agriculture:  they fertilized with manure, they used natural pesticides, and they selected for plants based on the taste and health components of the finished product.  The food these farms produced was extremely rich in vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting compounds.

However, those old-fashioned techniques did not scale up to the industrial demands of modern times.  The big farms of today apply harsh chemical fertilizers to the soil, and they demand plants that grow quickly, ripen simultaneously, and produce large brightly-colored fruit—the taste and health components are lesser priorities.  The unripe fruit is harvested by machines and loaded onto trucks, trains, and ships bound for markets all over the world.

Today, Americans spend less than 10% of their income on food, and we get a lot more food for the money.  However, the changes in farming methods that produced this amazing surplus of inexpensive food have come with a price.  The produce of today is not as rich in vitamins and minerals as the food our great-grandparents enjoyed.  In fact, one study showed that the nutritional density of produce has declined by more than 30% in the last fifty years alone.

Junk foods obviously add a lot of empty calories to the waistline of America.  However, health-conscious consumers who follow a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables are forced to eat 30% more calories to achieve the same level of nutrition.  And we are getting a dose of chemical pesticides in this food that our forefathers never had to worry about.

There is a growing demand among consumers to know more about the real nutritional value of their produce.  None of us want to go back to the food-scarce days of 1901, and we don’t want to spend more to eat well.  Consumers simply want good information.  Supermarkets typically score their produce based size, shape, and color, but finding the real score on nutritional density is not so easy.

In part two of this series, we will find out how specific changes in farming techniques can raise or lower the level of nutrition of our food.

Breaking Down a Tomato

The Importance of Phytochemicals

4 responses

  1. Awesome write up and can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on this.. its something that is near and dear to my heart, I think that in quest to breed big, better, or for shipping or for evenness, we have lost things that our body’s need in regards to the quality of the food itself

  2. I have a feeling that the “tasteless” fruits and veggies are precisely the ones lacking in nutritional value. I’ve been buying carrots from local farms, for example. They’re wonderful. But last week I couldn’t find any, so I picked up a package from the grocery store. They were truly awful – not just tasteless, but somehow acidic. Today, I picked up another package from the store, but bought organic. They weren’t as good as the local, but at least they tasted like carrots, had better color and were nicely crisp.

    • I believe that flavor and health properties are totally linked. That is an interesting observation you made about those carrots.

      First of all, carrots need plenty of natural potassium in the soil to help unlock their sugar molecules, and the industrial applications at large-scale farms don’t compare, in terms of taste, with the old-fashioned soil amendments that are expensive and inefficient on large-scale farms.

      Second, carrots love a good frost, which activates their sugars and starches as a form of self-defense against the cold. This process maximizes flavor and sweetness. You can grow carrots in warmer weather, but they will be acidic-tasting and not very flavorful.

      On a large-scale farm, where carrots are a commodity, the goal is to produce as many cost-effective units as possible that score high on size, shape, color, and “free of blemishes”. Taste and health properties are not scored by the USDA or the supermarket chains. That is why we get these big colorful carrots that taste terrible like the ones you had.

      Thank you so much for wonderful comment, I really appreciate your visits! Justin

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