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The Nutrient Levels In Our Food Are Declining

By Cheryl Long

Tags: nutrition, nutrient decline, #BAD11,

The following blog post is a contribution to the 2011 Blog Action Day focused on food issues. 

I am proud to be taking part in Blog Action Day OCT 16 2011

As our food system has shifted from decentralized, local small-farm “agri-culture” to highly centralized industrial “agri-business,” this has caused the nutrient content of many foods to decline. Numerous factors are causing this decline, including breeding for ever-higher yields, food processing, cheap sugar and oils, and industrial meat and dairy production.

In some cases, the declines have been very gradual. Over the last 100 years, important minerals in WHEAT varieties grown on the Great Plains—iron, zinc, phosphorous and sulfur—have declined from 20 to 33 percent.
Sulfur is essential for plants to produce protein, so a drop in sulfur indicates a decline in protein content. One study found that contemporary wheat varieties contain ONLY HALF AS MUCH PROTEIN as older varieties! During this same period, YIELDS of wheat have at least doubled as a result of “green revolution” varieties that are shorter, but require heavier levels of fertilizer and irrigation than older varieties. In CORN, studies show similar trends—a doubling of yield, but accompanied by declines in important nutrients.

 Corn Nutrition 

Food Processing Is An Additional Factor 

Not only have the nutrient levels in corn and wheat declined as farmers have switched to higher-yielding, more profitable varieties, but food processors then remove the germ from these grains when they produce flours, because this gives flours and breads longer shelf-life. Longer shelf life could be useful at home, too, but it comes at a stunning cost:

Whole Wheat Nutrition 

The nutrient density of our FRUITS and VEGETABLES has also declined as new, higher-yielding varieties have been adopted. Breeders have used hybridization to improve yield, earliness, growth rate, disease resistance and uniformity. But no one was measuring changes in nutrient content (or flavor). We can now document “broadly declining nutrient concentrations” in fruits and vegetables over the last 50 years.
Careful analysis of historical nutrient data from both the United Sates and Great Britain has been conducted by Dr. Donald Davis of the University of Texas. Dr. Davis has found that protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C have all declined in fresh produce, while carbohydrates (starch and sugar) appear to be increasing.

Reasons for Nutrient Declines 

The Environmental Dilution Effect. Since the 1940s, scientists have known that yield increases achieved from fertilization, irrigation and weed control sometimes decrease mineral concentrations. 

The Genetic Dilution Effect. Some scientists are now recognizing that in many cases breeding for higher-yielding varieties has lead to reduced nutrient levels in food crops. BROCCOLI, for example, is a significant source of calcium for many people. Newer varieties give dramatically higher yields, but calcium content has plummeted from 13 mg/g in 1950 to only 4.4 mg/g in 2003.

Malnutrition For Some 

In less developed countries, adoption of “green revolution” wheat and rice varieties has lead to “hidden hunger.” People get enough calories (carbohydrates) from these grains, but not enough nutrients, leading to malnutrition and disease.

Increasing Percent WaterMost studies are conducted on a “dry weight” basis. Those studies that measure trends in nutrient concentrations on a “fresh weight” basis often show that the percent water is increasing.
Some of the increase in percent water is due to excess use of chemical nitrogen fertilizers. (This nutrient is difficult to hold in non-organic soils, so growers often over-apply it.) Organic growers use only natural, slower-release fertilizers, so organic produce often has lower water content, making it more nutrient-dense, pound for pound, than industrial products.

What About Meat, Poultry and Dairy Products? 

Industrial production of animal products is fraught with problems and is clearly unsustainable and inhumane. It offers cheaper, but less-nutritious, food. Breeding animals for rapid growth, and raising them in filthy confinement conditions on unnatural, high-grain diets, is causing “conventional” meat, eggs, butter and cheese to be less nutritious in various ways.

For example, eggs from heritage chickens raised on pasture contain up to 30 percent more vitamin E, 30 percent more vitamin B-12 and 50 percent more folate, than industrial eggs (from intensively bred hybrids) sold in most supermarkets.

Here’s what Dr. Bruce Ames says about folate and vitamin B-12, in his paper, “Increasing Longevity by Tuning Up Metabolism,” published in Nature magazine: “Folate (and vitamin B-12) deficiency cause chromosome breaks in human genes ... and have been associated with increased risk of colon cancer. 15-year use of a multivitamin supplement with folate lowered colon cancer risk by about 75 percent.” 

“Folate and vitamin B-12 deficiencies are associated with cognitive defects in humans. ... Inadequate folate intake ... has been associated with an estimated 10 percent of heart disease in the United States.”

Compared to industrial beef and dairy products, foods from animals raised on pasture are often richer in vitamins E, A and D, beta-carotene, and heart-healthy, cancer-fighting fatty acids (omega-3s and CLA). Grass-fed products also contain less total fat.

Why This Nutrient Decline Trend is Not Being Widely Discussed 

Companies that sell food to us have a vested interest in funding and promoting studies that are positive toward the products they sell to us. Any topic that threatens companies’ bottom lines is not likely to be chosen by researchers, nor is funding for the research likely to be available. “Independent” university research is often heavily influenced by corporate interests.

In the case of plant breeders’ newest technology, genetic engineering, the influence of vested corporate interests has become so extreme that companies will not even release seeds of GE varieties to researchers who want to study them. Or, they require the researchers to sign an agreement that gives the company the right to refuse to allow the research results to be published, if the company does not like the results. So much for using science to get at the truth.

The Obesity Epidemic 

There is an additional factor that is making our diets less nutritious: adoption of higher-yielding grain varieties has meant that these primary sources of sugar and starch have become less and less expensive, causing corn syrup in particular to be added to more and more processed foods, and to be marketed extensively as soft drinks.
Sodas are now often less expensive than bottled water!
And did you know—one can of Coca Cola contains 10 TEASPOONS OF SUGAR!
Humans have a natural sweet tooth—it evolved to help us know when wild foods were ripe and prime for eating.
Most of us choose the least-expensive foods. This is only natural, since we can’t see which products are more nutrient-dense.
But super-cheap sugars and starches, together with our natural tendency to choose whatever is least expensive (and sweetest), is causing us to consume far more carbohydrates than we need, as well as fewer essential vitamins and minerals. 

Also, thanks to cheaper, higher-yielding corn and other oil crops, we now consume far more vegetable oils than our bodies evolved with, and the balance of important types of fatty acids in these oils has shifted in a way that researchers now report is harmful. Industrial meat and dairy production has also contributed to this shift in ratios of beneficial fatty acids.

The Result Is Our Obesity Epidemic
We now live in a world where about a billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, while another billion suffer from obesity.

The Consequences of Inadequate Vitamin and Mineral Intake 

Q: How many ESSENTIAL VITAMINS AND MINERALS are there? ”Essential” means that for optimum health, we must consume them in our food.

So far, scientists have identified 40 essential nutrients:

Vitamin B1
Vitamin B2
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
Vitamin B5
Vitamin B6
Vitamin B7 (biotin)
Vitamin B9 (folic acid)
Vitamin B12
Vitamin Bp (choline)
Vitamin C
Vitamin D
Vitamin E
Vitamin K


Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Linoleic acid

Most nutritionists are taught that the average American diet generally provides adequate levels of the 40 known essential vitamins and minerals. But some scientists argue that the current “recommended daily amounts” are not sufficient to prevent long-term DNA damage that leads to cancer and accelerated aging. Here’s how Dr. Ames put it: “Inexpensive, processed foods and drinks are calorie-rich but poor in micronutrients, and as a consequence, the United States and other developed countries are now facing an epidemic of obesity associated with micronutrient malnutrition.”
Ames explains that “common micronutrient deficiencies are likely to damage cell DNA by the same mechanism as radiation and many chemicals ...” ZINC DEFICIENCY, for example, is associated with cancer in both humans and rodent models. 10 percent of the U.S. population ingests less than 50 percent of the RDA for zinc. IRON DEFICIENCY is also associated with DNA damage, and INADEQUATE VITAMIN D is linked to several types of cancer, according to Dr. Ames.
Current government guidelines recommend that we eat 5 to 9 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Eighty percent of children and 68 percent of adults do not eat five servings per day.


What Can You Do? 


REDUCE YOUR INTAKE OF REFINED CARBOHYDRATES, such as sugar, white flour and rice.


Inexpensive home grain mills together with refrigerators and freezers make it easy for anyone to grind their own fresh flours. Homemade whole-grain bread takes only a few minutes a day and costs about 50 cents per loaf!

When you can, grow your own or shop at farmers markets and CHOOSE HEIRLOOM, NON-HYBRID, LOWER-YIELDING VARIETIES.


Choose meat, dairy and eggs from PASTURE-BASED PRODUCTION systems, and do not worry so much about the saturated fats in these foods.

Choose ORGANICALLY GROWN PRODUCE whenever you can.

Be prepared to PAY MORE for food that comes from lower-yielding but more nutrient-dense grain and produce varieties, and from more humane, less-intensive grass-based egg, meat and dairy production.


READ MORE about nutrient decline in our food supply

Is Agribusiness Making Food Less Nutritious? 

Industrial Farming is Giving Us Less Nutritious Food 



regan milne
10/28/2011 6:06:51 PM

You are just posting away confusing the sh*t out of everyone. Nobody listen to this guy.

t brandt
10/21/2011 9:01:18 PM

The tone of the article is that modern ag production is bad for us. it isn't. Maybe mouthful per mouthful there aren't quite as many nutrients in modern food compared to old, but it's still plenty good for us. We have painted ourselves into a corner: our technology allows increased yields which supports a larger population which requires increased yields. Now we have no way to get off the merry-go-round without causing some major suffering in the population. This is why I'm an advocate of self-sufficiency. Noah didn't try to save everybody. "All for one and one for all and every man for himself!"--Curly Howard ;-)

t brandt
10/21/2011 8:52:55 PM

You can get 60 gm of protein from wheat, but it's incomplete, so you have to take in even more calories from other veggies to get the extra amino acids you need-- that's why obesity is a problem in those who don't eat enough meat. Keep in mind that insulin prevents you from burning fat. Diabetes is a genetic disease. It shows itself when someone with those genes eats too many carbs; the carbs don't "cause" DM; they only allow DM to show itself. Polyusaturated fats only occur in plants, not animals. There is stronger evidence that polysaturated fats are good for you than poly-unsaturated are bad for you. Just eat fresh meat, fruits & veggies and then you don't have to worry about it. BTW- there is no evidence that vegetarians are healthier. In fact, the healthiest diet over-all has been shown to be the "caveman diet"-- even better than the "Mediterranean."

t brandt
10/21/2011 8:33:53 PM

Life expectancy from caveman times until John Crapper invented the fluch toilet just after the Civil War was about 25 yrs. The ultimate length of life for a human has been 4 score & 10 since biblical times (has to do with the poorly understood telomere on the chromosome-- it's genetic). With improvded sanitation, life expectancy rose to 48 yrs and with antibiotics it rose to mid-60s. Once we realized treatmentof hi BP was important, it rose to the 70s. More and more peopel are reaching that ripe old age do to medical technology. if you don't die young of infections, then you live long enough to get cancer-- that's why ca seems to be so much more prevalent today.

chris rodgers
10/21/2011 6:17:31 PM

I'm wondering why everyone is so quick to discount these findings. I doubt that we actually know yet what our exact nutritional needs are. They have definitely changed over recent time based on new findings and how would you be able to say that you had finally nailed all of the required nutrients and the exact amounts? Americans tend to limit their foods to around 20 different types of plant foods or fewer. Our nearest animal relatives often eat as many as 400 different plants. Does tend to make me wonder. I enjoy using meat and I choose locally grown and pastured animals because I'm relatively certain they are healthier and better for me. If we were eating wild game it would probably be even closer to what we evolved to eat. But it can be shown that the soil used for industrial farming has lost much of its quality and is essentially dead compared even to your pasture. Why argue against these ideas?

chris rodgers
10/21/2011 6:04:05 PM

We did not all die at 40. That is an average that includes the higher infant and childhood death rates in the past as well as other deaths of younger individuals. Margaret Mead pointed this out and as an example said she knew many old people when she was a child at the turn of the century between 1890's and 1900's. That would mean those old people were born in the early 1800's. To say we all dropped dead at 40 when that was the AVERAGE age of death is bad use of statistics. AND the reason average life expectancy has gone up in modern times is because we discovered antibiotics and vaccines. Before that, the scientific discoveries were cleanliness and sanitation when we found out what caused infection and how infections spread. These were huge improvements to general health and rates of death which would have covered up any slow decrease in the nutritional value of our food. I was born mid 1900's. My mother's cousin who is a few years older than I am, almost died at age two from an intestinal infection that would have been easily cured by the time I was born. And I have friends my age who survived polio but many didn't. However, when I was a child, I didn't even know what cancer was. Now I have several friends who have already fought serious cancers. Many have survived but not all and these were not old people. So we are dying now from different things than people did in the first half of the 1900's. You are going to have to dig a little bit deeper to come to valid conclusions about the above article. I agree that the choice of comparing whole grain wheat to flour only shows that processing decreases the nutritional value of food. A comparison of any food grown by large agricultural businesses compared to the same food grown organically would have related better to the article.

p esainko
10/21/2011 5:49:19 PM

Speaking of idiocy (which means self-absorption, ignoring others)— study after study shows improved response to better nutrition, especially plant-based; protein in a plant (not soy) is ‘incomplete’ only in the sense that some amino acids— lysine or methionine-cystine—are lower, and other plants make up the difference if eaten that day; several studies have shown better health of vegetarians and even vegans compared to omnivores; 60 grams of protein from hard red spring wheat alone has 1300 Calories, cooked soy alone under 700, and eaten in the same meal or on the same day are complete in smaller amounts than alone; lower mean lifespan does not entail earlier aging, look at the earlier Presidents who reached their 80s. Many infants used to die soon after birth—now fewer do, raising the average; and sadly, several authorities in nutrition predict lowering of US lifespan because of obesity and diabetes Type 2, both linked to sugary beverages and factory-made ‘foods’. By the way, the first 2 ‘amino’ acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids.

abbey bend
10/21/2011 2:05:37 PM

To say this article is poorly written rubbish would be kind! It shows why so little information like this is discussed because the entire article is a rabbling apples to oranges comparison! Only an idiot would compare things like wheat berries, to ground white flour! It would be like comparing the peel of an orange to the entire orange, not very helpful when it comes to facts!! When the population of the world was mostly hunters, an old man was 35-40. When the population of the planet did a lot of farming, an old man was around 35-40. There are mutiple ancient cultures where old people were any one over 30! In the same time period this article is talking about the life expectancy climbed from around 66 to over 80 in the United States. Average life expectancy of early 20th worldwide, 31. Average life expectancy worldwide currently 67. If the food is all going to pot, the life expectancy would be going down not up worldwide! There is so much missing from this article, and to put it out as anything coherent or even factual is stupid.
10/16/2011 2:51:43 PM

OK, now here's what it really means: in regards vitamins & minerals, it's all over-kill anyways. Even the "less nutritious" processed foods have more than enough of these nuttrients. Most of that ingested winds up excreted anyways. A 420 ft home run is not any better than a 312 ft home run: they both count for only one run. The protein from any one veg source is incomplete. Complete protein can be obtained by eating rice, corn & beans, but to get a measly 60 gm of protein from these sources , one must eat over 6000 cal worth each day! The calorie / protein ratio in plants is much too high and we eat too much of it- that's why there's so much obesity in the US today. We need a balanced diet with fewer carbs.