Is Fresh Produce Still Nutritious?

Marilyn Vos Savant, a columnist for Parade Magazine, was recently asked if it’s true that nutritious fruits and vegetables are a thing of the past – or somewhat less nutritious today than they were a few decades ago.

Her answer was yes! She stated that “as farmers continue to produce larger, more robust crops, this is probably true.” She cited two kinds of evidence: 1) historical food composition data and 2) studies on the mineral content of larger crop yields.

This caused the editors at Not-Just-Recipes, a vegetarian website, to do some investigation as well. They found that the USDA routinely measures mineral and vitamin content of a variety of foods. A University of Texas research analyst (Feb. issue of the Journal of HortScience) compared the vitamin/mineral content of vegetables from the 1950’s to those grown in more recent times. There was a significant drop in the nutritional content of vegetables from the early 1950s compared to ones from the late 1990s. They analyzed thirteen different vitamins/minerals and six of them showed marked decreases compared to vegetables raised in the 1950s.

What Other Impacts Does The Data On Fruit And Vegetable Nutrition Suggest?

Another finding was that there’s wide variation in the vitamin/mineral content of the same type of vegetable grown by different producers. Researchers randomly sampled vegetables from various producers. They found some contained high levels of phytonutrients and vitamins while others had many times less. For example, a head of cabbage grown at one location might contain twenty times more indoles than cabbage from another producer. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way for the consumer to identify which head of cabbage is the healthier.

So, why are there less nutritious veggies now compared to earlier times?

If you’re American you might know that it seems to partially, at least, boil down to money – how to produce the greatest number of vegetables in the shortest amount of time. Today’s farmers want to grow crops rapidly so they can get them to market and see a quick return. When crops spend less time in the soil, they absorb fewer nutrients and ultimately have fewer health benefits. Some vegetable crops are also affected by the use of nitrogen based fertilizers which can reduce the nutritional value of some types of produce. There’s also the problem of transportation. When produce has to travel long distances to reach supermarkets and then sets for long periods on supermarket shelves, less nutritious fruits and veggies are the result.

Imported fruits and vegetables are supposed to have a label telling where they came from. But it would seem that they would take a bit longer to reach market than domestically grown produce. If they are typically picked “early” they haven’t had a chance to absorb whatever they can from the sometimes depleted soil in which they’re grown.

How Can We Get More Nutritious Fruits And Vegetables?

A really good way to counteract the problem of less nutritious fruits and veggies is to buy locally grown produce. Because it travels less distance before reaching the consumer, locally grown produce retains more of its nutritional value. Plus, local growers may not have the same pressure to grow crops rapidly that large agri-businesses have. Another option is to buy organic. Organically grown vegetables are grown without nitrogen based fertilizers and should retain more of their nutritional value. This has been confirmed by some studies.

Bottom line:

Keep eating fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re still a great source of vitamins, minerals, and disease fighting phytochemicals. Consider buying local or organic. Even better? Grow your own.

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