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.

  • nutrient-value-of-cornmeal
    Conventionally grown cornmeal contains significantly fewer nutrients than an heirloom variety.

  • nutrient-value-of-cornmeal

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

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 :

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