Community//

Where Have All the Nutrients Gone?!

Understanding the Disappearance of Vital Nutrients from Our Produce

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We’ve all heard it before. Someone over age 65 looks at virtually any underperforming object they also used in their childhood and sighs, “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Although this declaration is often met with an eye-roll, (no, Uncle Bill, the battery company did not change the way they made batteries to make them not last as long), it is unfortunately correct when it comes to our food. Wait…what? Yes, our food!

When Grandma complains the strawberries she just bought look nothing like what she ate when she was growing up or even like what she fed her children, she’s right. Nostalgia for the “good old days” of our food supply is real! Over the years, our produce has changed significantly. Back in the 1940s, apples weren’t regularly the size of our heads and carrots couldn’t double as a yardstick, like they can be today. We’ve grown accustomed to large and “perfect” looking produce. In reality, we probably shouldn’t be judging our apples by their stellar appearance.

While the looks of our fruits and veggies get prettier, their contents seem to move in the opposite direction. In fact, one of the most pressing food issues we face today is nutrient depletion. Over the past few decades, the nutrients in our food have slowly been disappearing. We are a country of people who are overfed and undernourished! In more recent years, the term food desert no longer refers to limited access to food but rather limited access to nutrition.

In 1975, if we were to eat 100g (½ cup) of broccoli, we would be getting 103mg of calcium. In 1997, when eating the same 100g (½ cup) of broccoli, we would only be getting 48mg of calcium. That’s a decline of 53.4%! No wonder it’s so much harder to meet our daily nutrient requirements, WTF! 

Vitamin C isn’t the only nutrient disappearing. According to Scientific American and Mother Earth News, over the last 50 years, the amounts of proteins, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C in conventionally grown fresh fruits has significantly declined. And this is not a problem for the US alone. Donald Davis, a biochemist at the University of Texas, concluded that there are similar trends discovered in the United Kingdom as well — despite their stricter food supply guidelines. Where have all the nutrients gone?! (Sing it, Paula Cole!)

We are a country of people who are overfed and undernourished!

There are a few explanations. The first is the evolution of our farming practices. Due to the higher demand for food, farmers have evolved their farming habits to increase their crop yield while using the same-sized plot of land. Although this is a crucial step to feeding large populations, the nutrients in our soil are a finite resource. With the same amount of soil yielding twice as much crop, the nutrients end up divided between all the output. Nutrients can’t miraculously multiply when we grow more in the same plot. So we would technically have to eat multiple times as many fruits and veggies as our grandparents did to get the same amount of nutrients. 

Additionally, remember learning about crop rotation in elementary school? The purpose was to help prevent nutrient depletion in the soil. Different crops pull different nutrients from the soil and replenish different nutrients in the soil. When we continuously grow the same crops, we continuously pull the same nutrients from the soil. Without crop rotation, nutrient replenishment isn’t happening organically (no pun intended) which leaves our soil even further depleted of the nutrients we expect to see in our produce.  

While some farmers try to avoid planting the same crop in the same plot of land for an extended period of time to allow the soil to replenish its nutrients, it’s not to the same extent as it used to be.

Another problem contributing to the lack of nutrients in produce is the shortened length of time it spends on the vine. Follow me with this: nutrients come from the soil through the vine to the fruit/vegetable. If the fruit or vegetable is not attached to the vine it no longer gets nutrients from the soil. Now, when you walk through the grocery store, you pick the prettiest apple with zero bruises or dark spots. We often pick slightly under-ripe bananas so they will last longer once we get them home. Pause for a moment here, if the apple is to look perfect in the store and the bananas are to be just ripe or even slightly under, and they have to travel from their farm to your grocery story, which is potentially across the country (and in some cases, across the world), the farmer must pull the produce from the vine BEFORE it is ripe. The sooner we pick ‘em, the fewer the nutrients.

In a perfect world, we would pick produce from the vine once it has ripened and eat it within a couple days. If we attempt this with our traditional grocery stores, the optimal consumption days would be spent on a truck or plane and then you’d see brown bananas in the produce aisle. You’d pass them up, the grocer would toss ‘em out and lose money. It’s really about economics that our practices “evolved” the way they did.  

With an increased demand for food, demand for all fruits and vegetables all year long (bye-bye seasonality) and our farmers becoming single-crop growers, more and more of our produce is imported, traveling long distances. Think about it: in New York, you cannot grow apples in the winter, so the apples in the grocery store in January are not locally grown. They are coming from a place where the January climate allows for apple trees to thrive (i.e. far away). 

In January 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published that nearly 70% of our vegetables and 40% of our fruits are imported. To add some context to these numbers, in January 2015, the USDA reported that 44% of our vegetables were imported. The trends are not moving in favor of maximum nutrient value. 

Don’t worry, I get your frustrations: not only is it already challenging to eat healthily; now you’re seeing the “healthy foods” may not be as nutrient-packed as we thought! 

Rest assured, I would not talk about a problem without giving you some solutions. Your first step is eat local, shopping at farmers markets. This improves the timeline balance between time on the vine and time in transit. In addition, investing in a high-quality multivitamin is important. Realizing, we are not going to eat more than 10 times the amount of fruits and vegetables our grandparents ate to get the same amount of Vitamin C, multivitamins are a great way to fill in the gaps where our nutrition falls short. 

How to choose your multi could be the topic of another entire article! Suffice to say, avoid binders, fillers, chemicals and dyes. If it makes you nauseous when you take it, it’s probable the vitamin is sitting in your empty stomach while your body tries to break it down meaning binders, fillers and coatings are presenting a challenge for absorption. It could also be that the formula’s combination of ingredients is giving doses of vitamins which conflict and can cause discomfort. Another rule of thumb: if you don’t notice a difference between how you feel when you take it and how you feel when you forget it, you’re likely not absorbing it. Finally, read the ingredients; no one is deficient in Blue 2 Lake, Red 40 Lake, Corn Starch, Talc or hydrogenated oils (what makes a gummy, a gummy). Be your own health advocate and enlist an expert if/when you’re unsure. To support you in your optimal health, I will offer my time for free, to help you select a multivitamin; simply reach out to me and reference this article.

We face many challenges when it comes to our health. It may feel like the odds are stacked against us. Remember, though, education and awareness are the first steps. And you did that; congrats! Check the box. Now you can take action toward your better health.

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