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.
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.