As nutrition declines, supplements help fill the gap.
A carrot is a carrot, right? Well, not always. Today’s carrot looks the part of a winner. It’s larger and more pest resistant than Grandma’s garden variety, but it doesn’t compare nutritionally to the one she added to her Sunday roast beef years ago.
Over the past 50 years, agriculture technology expanded crop yields like never before and allowed farmers to produce two or three times more fruits, vegetables and grains. But in the rush to feed the world, modern farming methods are depleting the nutrient content of the soil. With each planting of a fast-growing, pest-resistant hybrid crop, carrots have grown inferior.
And it’s not just carrots’ nutritionals that are suffering.
Brian Halweil, who authored a nutritional report for The Organic Center and is food expert at Worldwatch Institute, likens this nutritional decline in fruits and vegetables to monetary inflation. “We have more food, but it’s worth less in terms of nutritional value,” he says.
Donald Davis and a team of University of Texas at Austin researchers from the department of chemistry and biochemistry studied U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 1950 and 1999. They found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin or vitamin B2, and vitamin C in 43 different vegetables and fruits.
Davis reported to the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, “Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that produce greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly, but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.”
Rates of nutritional decline vary from food to food and study to study. The Organic Consumers Association cites a Kushi Institute 1975-1997 analysis and British data analysis from 1930 to 1980 published in the British Food Journal, each reporting substantial nutritional decline in fruits and vegetables. Another study concluded that the vitamin A content in oranges has fallen to a level where one needs to eat eight of them to equal one of yesteryear’s varieties.
“Less nutrient –dense food, coupled with poor food choices, goes a long way toward explaining today’s epidemics of obesity and diabetes,” Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, told Worldwatch.org.
Improving soil depletion issues is the key to solving the per-serving nutritional decline of fruits, vegetables and grains. Proponents of organic agriculture recommend forgoing pesticides and fertilizers in favor of manure, cover crops and allowing fields to lie fallow between planting cycles. These practices improve soil quality, but they take time and cost money that savvy, health-conscious consumers don’t have.
Because robust root systems aggressively absorb nutrients from the soil, they produce crops with higher concentrations of nutrients and phytochemicals. “Still No Free Lunch,” The Organic Center’s report, estimates organically grown foods may have as much as 20% higher nutritional content for some minerals and may average 30% more antioxidants than conventionally farmed foods.
Organics might be the nutritional solution consumers seek, but there’s more to it. More readily available now than they were a decade ago, they remain costly. So what is a nutrition-conscious consumer to do?
Gardeners might heed advice from Mother Earth News, which recommends planting older, lower-yielding heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties in the backyard garden, using organic growing methods and moderate amounts of slow-release fertilizers.
Consumers without a plot of land might switch some produce purchases to organic, especially for the environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen.” On the infamous list are conventionally produced peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes. These foods are notorious for pesticide and other chemical contamination, which includes known carcinogens. Outlaying extra cash for organics in this case is win/win – reducing chemical contamination and boosting per-serving nutrition levels.
Nutritional Support Beyond Food
Today’s complex nutritional landscape is increasingly difficult for consumers to navigate, made worse by news that nutrients in whole foods are diminishing. But consumer awareness is growing, linking proper nutrition to health, weight loss and even living longer and better. How, then, can consumers optimize their health if today’s “carrot” doesn’t supply the nutrients they need?
“Often, the doses of those nutrients needed for a therapeutic effect are simply way more than are going to be available in the average diet, even a diet constructed according to the best longevity principles,” Jonny Bowden, Ph.D. writes in his best-selling book The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer.
Over-the-counter nutritional supplements fill dietary gaps, and Bowden likes to think of them as a technology – a kind of modern-day delivery system for nutrients we can’t get enough of otherwise. Without them, the immune system malfunctions. Bacteria and viruses more easily invade the body, the susceptibility to secondary infection increases and so too does recovery time.
The World Health Organization Center for Nutritional Immunology studied older adults in a double-blind controlled study to find that after 12 months of basic multivitamin and mineral supplementation, the supplemental group reported half as many sick days and their immune function improved.
Maintaining proper nutrient levels in the body is the key to healthy living at all ages, but it is particularly important for dieters limiting carbohydrates and other foods in an effort to lose weight. And it might them more successful, as well.
The Mayo Clinic recommends nutritional supplements for anyone with a substandard diet, those who consume less than 1,600 daily calories, as well as vegans and vegetarians. People with disorders or past surgeries of the digestive tract and women who experience heavy menstrual bleeding, are pregnant, trying to conceive, breast-feeding or or are postmenopausal should also use nutritional supplements.
Beyond balanced multivitamin supplements, Bowden recommends adding fish oil, full of omega-3 fatty acids, which help protect the heart; CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant made in the body that declines as people age; and L-carnitine, an amino acid-like substance that helps with cellular energy. But zinc, which boosts the immune system, and a mix of antioxidants including vitamin C, selenium, beta-carotene, and vitamin E, also make Bowden’s supplement list.
“Many people who take vitamins on a regular basis don’t get sick very often. Whether that’s because they’re healthier to begin with or because the vitamins in some way support their immune system is an open question,” Bowden writes. “Vitamins aren’t the only thing that can keep you healthy, but they may help.”
Why Food Today Isn’t Enough
by Beth Douglas S. Silcox in The Challenge Magazine