Have We Bred the Nutrition Out of Our Food?

Some worry that modern agriculture really stripped the nutrition from our food supply. What does this mean for your salad bowl? Nutrition Diva explains.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #238

Have We Bred the Nutrition Out of Our Food?

Several Nutrition DIva fans have asked me to comment on the article entitled “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” which appeared recently in The New York Times. The author, Jo Robinson, observes that humans naturally prefer fruits and vegetables with more sugar and starch and that the varieties we’ve cultivated over the millennia reflect those tastes. But, she points out, these tastier varieties tend to be lower in phytonutrients, which often impart a bitter taste to foods. She suggests that eating your veggies isn’t going to keep you healthy if you’re eating modern cultivars.

This anxiety that fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they used to be is not new, and I’ve addressed it in a previous podcast. But a high profile article like this is sure to breathe new life into this anxiety. While Robinson has gathered interesting data to support her argument, some of her reasoning doesn’t seem logical to me, and I don’t agree with all of her conclusions.



It’s Only Nutritious If You Eat It

For example, Robinson points out that today’s apples contain less than half the phytonutrients found in the wild crab apples from which modern apples descended. But is this really a fair comparison? Have you ever tried to eat a crab apple that hadn’t been cooked in sugar syrup? They’re barely edible! How many crab apples do you think your kids are going to eat? I would argue that the cultivation of the modern apple—palatable, portable, and ubiquitous—has probably vastly increased the average human’s intake of apple polyphenols and not the opposite.

Robinson also lauds the nutritional superiority of purple carrots and potatoes, but glosses over the fact that the ones you’re likely to find at your grocer are brand new varieties that have been specifically cultivated for their color and nutritional content. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse modern agriculture of systematically stripping the nutrients from our food supply. In some cases, it is actively engaged in breeding more nutrition in.

She goes on to talk about how nutritious arugula is. Good thing, because it’s everywhere you look these days. I didn’t eat a single leaf of arugula for the first twenty years of my life and now I eat dozens of pounds of it a year--and I know I’m not alone. So it would appear that there is movement in both directions along the nutrition spectrum in the modern American diet.

Remember: More Is Not Always Better

Finally, there’s an unspoken—but completely unwarranted—assumption here that if something is 17 times higher in phytonutrients, we’re going to get 17 times more benefit from it. Although these plant-based compounds clearly have beneficial effects, we haven’t yet established recommended or optimal intakes for them. As with antioxidants, there is almost certainly a threshold beyond which you get little additional benefit. Who is to say that the amount of phytonutrients found in today’s produce doesn’t reach this threshold of efficacy?

In fact, here’s one piece of evidence to suggest that it might: Many of the big epidemiological studies that link greater intake of fruits and vegetables with improved health were done on populations that were eating regular old apples and broccoli. Keep in mind, as well, that some of the health benefits of a diet high in produce come from the produce itself. But a whole bunch more benefits are the result of what you’re NOT eating—because you’re eating fruits and vegetables instead.

How to Maximize Nutrient Intake From Vegetables

Now, I don’t mean to imply that I’m against wild-crafted salads or heirloom grains. And when Robinson gets around to the take home message, I’m in full agreement. Yes, darker pigments and stronger flavors often imply higher nutrient content. By all means, mix some arugula or fresh herbs into your salads. And, sure, you can increase your intake of phytonutrients by choosing blue corn chips instead of white—but you’ll still be getting a lot more phytonutrients from the salsa. And if fancy purple carrots aren’t in your market (or budget) every week, rest assured that the regular orange kind provide great nutritional value.

And finally, remember that the most nutritious vegetables are the ones you actually eat—so eat the ones you like. If you like dandelions and crab apples, great. But if the kids turn their noses up at bitter greens and sour apples, let them eat romaine and Gala apples.

See also: How Cooking Affects Nutrition and Raising Healthy Eaters

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Purple Carrots, Arugula and Woman Eating Salad images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.