Research has suggested though that even we are eating a diet which is brimming with all the right stuff, getting the nutrients we need has never been harder as our actual food is less nutritious than it was fifty years ago.
An orange we might eat today is not as nutritious as that which our grandparents would have eaten. In fact you would need to eat eight oranges today to get the benefits of one of theirs. A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis from the University of Texas examined American Department of Agriculture nutritional data from 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits. It found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2 and vitamin C over the past half century. This concept has gone on to be proved again and again.
A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27%; iron levels 37%; vitamin A levels 21%, and vitamin C was down 30%. Here in the UK a study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19%, iron dipped 22%; and potassium 14%.
And it isn’t just fruit and veg which is suffering from a decline in nutrients too. A 2002 study discovered chicken contained 15% less potassium, 26% less phosphorous and 69% less iron, turkey had a massive 71% less calcium and 79% less iron and beef contained 38% less iron and 84% less copper. The decline in the nutrients in beef also reflected in dairy products too. Cheddar cheese was on average 38% lower in magnesium and had 35% less potassium and 47% less iron. Parmesan cheese had 70% less calcium and iron. Whole milk was 21% lower in magnesium and had 63% less iron and that’s before the fat was removed for lower fat versions further reducing the nutrients available.
So, why is our food less nutrient packed? A variety of reasons, from the quality of our soil to the way in which the land is managed are at the root causes. Modern intensive agricultural methods are stripping nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows so each season the soil is less nutrient packed than the season before. To ensure the crops grow quickly, so each field can yield more per year instead of periods laying fallow, soil is ‘seeded’ which means minerals are added to it. Those which help growth particularly like sodium, phosphorus and potassium are used but this has the knock on effect of altering the natural mineral profile of our foods. So your average swede now commonly contains 110% of the phosphorus they once did. This balance shift also has a knock on effect on our bodies.
The herbicides which are added can change the way plants grow and the amount of nutrients they are then able to create. It also changes the balance of nutrients in the plant meaning some will be higher but these are often the ones we don’t need any more of. They increase while those our bodies need are reduced.
The nutritional value of plants has a knock on effect on our meat and dairy foods as they are consumed by animals. And our seas are more polluted than ever before and many of the fish we eat are intensively farmed meaning the fish are lower in a number of nutrients. Fish are also hit by the warming of the sea. As the water warms it becomes more acidic which is harmful to phytoplankton — the microscopic plants found in the upper layer of most oceans and waterways. It’s what the smaller fish live on which are eaten by those further up the food chain. And it’s an important source of fatty acids and the omega-3 levels of oily fish are declining at an alarming rate partly because of the lack of phytoplankton. This means we would need to at a lot more fish than before to receive the same benefits. And since the amounts of heavy metals found in fish have increased this is not ideal.
CO2 is also effecting the composition of key crops like rice – and will continue to have a potentially catastrophic effect on the nutrition received by whole communities as a result. A recent experiment by scientist Kristie Ebi saw a test paddy field subjected to concentrations of CO2 expected later this century: 580 parts per million compared to the current 410 parts per million. “We looked across a variety of kinds of and we confirmed what’s found in other studies: that protein, iron and zinc decline,” says Dr. Ebi. “And for the first time we report that essential B vitamins also decline under higher concentrations of carbon dioxide.” Put simply too much carbon dioxide is turning crops like rice into junk food. Exposure to more CO2 means crops don’t absorb the same amount of micronutrients from the soil and instead produce more starches and sugars, less protein and Vitamin B.
When flour – or any grain – is refined it’s stripped of its nutritious outer layer. For this reason food producers ‘fortify’ the foods but not everything which has been removed is replaced. Foods which are pre-cooked might last longer but they are less nutritious than those which are prepared fresh and some heat treating methods destroy certain vitamins. Therefore processed foods, made already with ingredients which are lower in nutrients than they would have been years ago, see a further decline in value. Meaning our grab-and-go culture leaves us with meals which are more nutritionally void than ever before.
For some of us our food choices are restricted because of allergies, medical conditions or because of ethical reasons, like following a vegetarian or vegan diet. Cutting out food groups can make it more of a challenge to ensure you get the right amount of nutrients. For example, animal foods are the main source of vitamin B12, so people who follow a vegan diet might be lacking.
There are also times in our lives when we need a higher dose of certain vitamins or minerals for our bodies to function as well as they should. Pregnancy means that a higher dose of folic acid is needed than usual and it’s recommended that everyone in the UK takes a vitamin D supplement in the winter months as the sunlight we receive is not enough to generate enough vitamin D to fulfil our needs.
While there’s no doubt we need to be eating our nutrients as much as we can, in the modern world supplements might give us the little extra help we need to stay on top.