I remember a few months back when I heard for the first time about how fruits and vegetables today have markedly less nutrients than they did just 50 years ago. As someone who is very interested in healthy eating and getting my nutrients naturally, rather than in pill form, that nugget of information definitely caught my attention. So imagine my surprise when I opened up the latest issue of Cooking Light to see an article claiming that less nutritious produce isn’t “necessarily bad news.” Now that definitely caught my attention.
According to the article, “The Truth About Fruits and Veggies,” a 2004 University of Texas study evaluated 43 different types of produce and found that what we eat today has 5 to 40 percent less nutrients than produce did in the 1950s. For example, today’s typical watermelon contains 38 percent less vitamin A. How exactly is this not “necessarily bad news?”
So what’s happened to fruits and vegetables over the last 50 years? According to Gene Lester, a USDA plant physiologist, American agriculture has undergone a dramatic transformation since the 1950s. Back then, fifty percent of Americans lived on farms and fed the rest of the country. Now, with much less acreage devoted farming, only 1 to 2 percent of the population feeds the other 99 percent. With a lot more people to feed and the need to ship produce longer distances, seed developers have focused on increased yield, disease resistance and shelf life, and ease of transport. Nutrient concentrations fell to the bottom of the list. So again, how exactly is this not “necessarily bad news?”
Well, the good news is that seed developers may be close to reversing the trend of declining concentrations of nutrients. Big companies and small-time producers alike are realizing that it is possible to crossbreed for more than one quality at a time. One such project has resulted in broccoli that has two to three times the level of the phytonutrient glucoraphanin compared to ordinary broccoli.
So while professional seed developers are working on remedying this issue, there are some things you and I can do to get more nutrition from fruits and vegetables:
- Choose vegetables that haven’t changed much since the 1950s, such as dark leafy greens.
- Choose heirloom fruits and vegetables which often have higher nutrient levels than varieties that have been developed since the 1950s.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables in general. Oftentimes it’s not the nutrient levels in produce that’s the problem, it’s that many people aren't eating them in the first place.