Rubbery, wishy-washy supermarket fruit and veggies got you down? You’re not alone. It’s the flipside of plants bred to produce bumper crops that can survive 1,000-mile cross-country treks and then look pretty on store shelves. Tasty? Not so much. But the problem goes deeper than a bouquet of blandness.
We’ve known for a while that our food has been dropping in nutritional content thanks to 50 years of this kind of thinking. The go-to source for this information is this 2004 study that found significant reductions in the amounts of little things like calcium, iron, phosphorus, and vitamins B2 and C in a wide range of fruits and vegetables, including corn, carrots, strawberries, and broccoli.
But it turns out that the effects on our food from the industrialization of agriculture pales in comparison to the effects on our food from the actual invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. While industrial agriculture has cut the amounts of nutrients in certain foods by as much as half, wild versions of common vegetables have hundreds or even thousands of times the phytonutrients and antioxidants of our current fare.
This all matters because these obscure but powerful compounds are the real benefit we get from eating our fruits and veggies. Our main nutrients, such as fats, proteins, and many minerals, we can get from carbs, meat, dairy, and legumes. But phytonutrients — which include familiar vitamins like beta-carotene and more obscure but possibly equally important substances like lutein, lycopene, anthocyanins, and flavonols — come only from plants. When your parent or doctor or the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells you to eat your fruit and veggies, what they’re really saying is, “Eat your phytonutrients!”
Author Jo Robinson, writing in the New York Times last Sunday, explains that cultivation of formerly wild foods, such as corn, apples, carrots, and many greens have left them a bare husk of their former selves. And the nutrient reduction has come almost entirely in these potent cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory, and all-around health-promoting substances, whose roles and functions we’re really just beginning to understand.
These chemicals are typically a plant’s pigment (the orange in carrots or sweet potatoes, for example) or a part of their defense systems. Research suggests their role in our health is complex and difficult to measure, especially since it’s likely they only work in combination with other chemicals and not in isolation (as many nutrients do) — so taking them in supplement form may not do you any good.
Robinson speculates that much of the nutrient reduction may have been caused by farmers wanting to breed out bitterness while increasing sweetness in their harvests — and it’s bitterness that is the hallmark flavor of many phytonutrients. Complicating matters, sweetness (and starchiness) were also a proxy for energy density, an important factor when eating sufficient amounts of calories was a real concern. This problem is, of course, made worse by our instinctive craving for sweetness, while bitterness in food is often a danger sign.
As plant biochemist Kirsten Brandt of Newcastle University’s School of Biomedicine in the U.K. explained it to me via email, this tendency likely goes back to our evolutionary roots when our ancestors were still tree-dwellers surrounded by predators:
We are pre-disposed to seek the food that provides the most calories in the shortest time, to minimize the time we need to spend foraging, exposed to the leopards or jaguars that used to lurk around every corner when we lived in trees … Now that most of us have plenty of food and no big cats to worry about, what used to be a crucial survival strategy for millions of years has become a recipe for disaster.
While plant breeders at the dawn of agriculture may have been the first to figure out that people wanted energy-dense food, it was modern processed food companies that figured out how to exploit that desire with products that have been engineered to reach our “bliss point” and keep us coming back for more calories than we need. Even worse, there’s evidence that consuming all this processed food, not to mention soda, is reprogramming our brains, thus making real food taste that much worse by comparison.
Robinson for her part suggests we rediscover the phytonutrient-rich foods that still bear hallmarks of their wild brethren. They can indeed be found in our grocery stores or farmers market: arugula, scallions, and herbs, for example. And there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, it’s even possible to forage a bit here and there. If you’re so inclined, Grist has some ideas to help you find yummy weeds.
Buying organic can help on this front, too. Despite the hubbub last year over a study that suggested that organics weren’t any more nutritious than conventionally grown produce, solid research out of England — conducted by Brandt, in fact — found that organics have a meaningful advantage over conventional produce, specifically in phytonutrient content.
But the fact is that most Americans would benefit most from shifting their diet away from processed foods and meats and toward more fruits and vegetables of any kind. That shift represents the, uh, low-hanging fruit when it comes to phytonutrients.
After all, the USDA recommends that Americans eat five servings of fruit and veggies a day. And while intake varies with region, income, and education, only one in four Americans manage to achieve that. Of course, if all of us did, we’d soon be facing a serious produce problem: U.S. farmers don’t produce enough veggies and fruit to meet that kind of demand.
So, no. We don’t need to all start growing our own. Or thrashing off into the backwoods in search of wild greens. Instead, I suggest following the old adage that says embrace the bitter with the sweet. It may take our tastebuds a bit of getting used to, but the health benefits are real and ours for the taking. And for pete’s sake, eat your veggies!
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