The Declining Nutrient Value of Food

Studies show a staggering decline in the nutrient value of food that is conventionally grown in the United States, which could result in widespread dietary deficiencies.

| December 2011/January 2012


Conventionally grown cornmeal contains significantly fewer nutrients than an heirloom variety.


Evidence continues to accumulate that our industrial food system is not serving us well when it comes to the nutrient value of food. True, American agribusiness has given us one of the cheapest food supplies in the world, but science reveals this food is “cheap” in more ways than one. Here are some of the things we know at this point:

  • Over the last 50 years, the amounts of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C in conventionally grown fresh fruits and vegetables have declined significantly. We know this thanks to rigorous analysis of USDA nutrient data by biochemist Donald Davis of the University of Texas. Similar trends have been discovered in the United Kingdom.
  • Wheat grown 100 years ago had twice as much protein as modern varieties.
  • Major declines in protein and several other nutrients have been documented in modern corn varieties (see the chart).

Davis lists the following causes for declines in the nutrient value of food:

Environmental Dilution Effects. Scientists have known for years that high rates of fertilizer and irrigation use can lead to higher yields, but sometimes at the expense of nutrient density of the crops. Nitrogen in particular is difficult to manage in the soil, and when farmers apply too much it causes plants to take up more water, resulting in high yields but giving us foods that have lower nutrient density.

Genetic Dilution Effects. As plant breeders develop “improved” varieties that give farmers ever higher yields, they are inadvertently causing food nutrient values to decline. Consider calcium in broccoli: Widely grown varieties in 1950 had about 13 mg/g of calcium, but today’s varieties provide only about 4.4 mg/g of calcium.

Similar declines are also being documented in meat, eggs and dairy products. Compared with industrial products, foods from animals raised on pasture are consistently richer in vitamins A, D and E, beta-carotene and beneficial fatty acids.

Prominent biochemist Bruce Ames argues that many Americans are not getting enough essential vitamins and minerals, and that the health consequences of these dietary deficiencies — increased cancer and accelerated aging — should be taken far more seriously than other problems such as pesticide residues in our food. In his paper, “Increasing Longevity by Tuning Up Metabolism,” Ames points out that the quarter of Americans who eat the fewest fruits and vegetables have twice the cancer risk of the quarter that eats the most.

8/9/2013 5:50:42 PM

Let me preface by saying that I believe strongly in eating organic, and do so 90 percent of the time.

I also am against big agribusiness, I love Mother Earth News, etc. etc.

But this article is fluff.  One can find the study here:

and the author of this MEN article definitley cherry-picked data to promote an agenda.

One need only read the conclusion of the study in which the scientists mention many reasons that their data could be wrong or confounded, saying more study is needed.

It was pretty irrefutable that some nutrients had gone through a decline, but I note this article does not mention that the study also showed that some nutrients in some foods had increased quite significantly

And to compare two different varieties of corn for the chart is just irresponsible.  different varieties have different nutritive properties, just as different varieties of wheat have different levels of protiens, starches, and fiber.

And lastly, the study itself makes NO CONCLUSIONS about organic versus conventional, local versus imported, though it does mention that those factors COULD account for the differences in nutrient levels, (along with at least 5 other possible factors) and that "more study is warranted."

jim stack
3/27/2012 6:02:20 PM

I buy organic and local everytime I can. This article shows why it's so important. Thanks

john sealander
1/23/2012 10:50:30 PM

It would be nice if you included a clear source for your statistics and 'studies' so we could decide for ourselves. I grow a great deal of my own food and also buy and trade with my farmer's market friends. Most of us use some form of what would be called Traditional Agriculture-manure, mulch, green manures and cover crops, etc because it's cheaper, tastier and local, but if I am going to present an idea to my friends they want facts, not political stances or posturing. So where are the Facts? For those of you interested here's a link to Dr Davis' PR release :

t brandt
1/19/2012 8:12:30 PM

Food costs are lower today as a percentage of income than ever before, so your argument about cost doesn't hold water. Seed cost only represents ~10% of production costs of crops so a doubling of seed price would only mean a 5% change in total cost to the farmer..... From the chart in the article, 100g of "old" wheat contains about 1/10th the RDA of riboflavin, for instance. You'd have to eat about 4000 cal worth of that wheat per day to supply that vitamin, hence the conclusion that wheat is a lousy source of vitamins. (Use greens & citrus for vitamins; meat for protein. Grains are only good for calories, which most of us get too much of anyways.)....I use quotation marks for organic, specifically in that sentence, because farmers didn't know they were being "organic" in those days, and more generally because the term "organic" should really just mean anything carbon based, Using the term organic to imply natural or unadulterated gives me the sense somebody is trying to fool us with advertising gimmickry. If you check the regs, some things that really are natural can't be called organic and some things that do use artificial treatments can be called organic. Caveat emptor.

texasrunning depot
1/19/2012 5:41:12 PM

"The article points out that old wheat had 2x the protein of modern wheat, but fails to point out that we now get 3x as much wheat out of each acre, ie- 50% more protein/ac..." --'we' DO NOT get 3x as much wheat per acre, COMMERCIAL GROWERS get 3x as much wheat per acre, which 'we' then purchase. So, 'we' MUST now buy more of that wheat in order to get the same amount of nutrients--man, it would be nice to be the person selling wheat seeds to farmers. Oh--that's why there are only three major seed distributors for the ENTIRE WORLD??? Do you think they know people have to buy more food if it has less nutritional value? What is the root word of 'capitalism' again? --Do you truly believe that grains are 'NOT' a good source of vitamins??? And why did you put 'organic' in quotations? Are you insinuating that the term 'organic' as it is used and understood today is false?

john & virginia ledoux
1/19/2012 12:40:30 AM

Eat more.

t brandt
1/18/2012 12:11:30 PM

I've frequently commented here on articles that try to shake our confidence in our commercial food supply. As i've said before, we need the high yield industrial ag system to supply enough food for 7 billion mouths. "Organic" ag was pre-WWII ag- only 1/3 - 1/2 the yield we get now. This article is disingenuous when it shows differences in protein & vitamins in old vs new grain: Grain is simply NOT a good source of either, and if you're relying on it for those nutrients, you will be malnourished. The article points out that old wheat had 2x the protein of modern wheat, but fails to point out that we now get 3x as much wheat out of each acre, ie- 50% more protein/ac...Grow & eat your own for all the right reasons: the self satisfaction of self-reliance & living with Nature, the better taste and lower food cost. But if you can't grow your own, you still are getting a very good product at the store.

jon cassill
1/18/2012 12:52:27 AM

Panel on a related topic in NYC February 2nd "Slow Food Meets Big Business"

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