Is food nutritious anymore?
Are we breeding the nutrition out of our food?
Although I sell supplements, the conventional wisdom is that you receive the maximum amount of your nutrition through the food that you eat. In theory, this should mean that if you eat a healthy balanced diet with the proper amounts of protein, good fats, fruits, vegetables and grains you should not even need to supplement that diet. In fact it was the Greek physician Hippocrates who said nearly 2500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
However, even if we choose all the right fruits, vegetables, fish protein and grains it is highly unlikely that we are getting the proper nourishment from our food supply. Studies published within the last fifteen years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients which are the compounds associated with reducing the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. This loss did not happen 50 or 100 years ago but the truth is we have been stripping phytonutrients from plants since we stopped foraging for them some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.
New technology has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants to the produce sold in our supermarkets and the results are astounding.
Wild dandelions, once a springtime treat for Native Americans, have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach which we consider a “superfood.”A purple potato native to Peru has 28 times more cancer fighting anthocyanins than common russet potatoes. One species of apple growing wild has more than 100 times more phytonutrients than the Golden Delicious displayed in our supermarkets.
It could be argues that 10,000 years ago, before farming life expectancy was very short. However, anthropologists have determined that the primary cause of death in those days was injury and infection.
The two main reasons why fruits and vegetables have lost their nutrition are to reduce bitterness and to reduce fiber. Farmers preferred to grow vegetables and fruits that were sweet. They also found that plants that were low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil were more pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed for a vigorous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, the less advantageous they were for our health.
That wonderful sweet corn that we enjoy so much at this time of year illustrates both of these trends. The wild ancestor of our present-day corn is a grassy plant called teosinte. It is a bushy plant with short spikes of grain instead of ears and each spike has only 5 to 12 kernels. The kernels are encased in shells that would require a hammer to open them and if you did open them and try to eat them, you would probably spit them out. So even though teosinte has 10 times more protein than the corn we eat today, our ancestors did not like the taste and produced something more edible.
Over several thousand years, teosinte underwent several spontaneous mutations and eventually nature turned a spike of grain into a cob with kernels of many colours. Our ancestors liked this product and planted it in their gardens and by 1400 it was the staple diet of Mexico and the Americas.
When the European colonists first arrived in America they discovered that Indian corn came in a great variety of colours. A few hundred years later we learned that black, red and blue corn is rich in anthocyanins which have the potential to fight cancer, reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, protect the aging brain, and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
European settlers were content with these varieties until the summer of 1779 when they found something more delicate – a yellow variety with sweeter and more tender kernels. It was actually discovered by soldiers who were in the process of destroying the food crops of the Iroquois tribes who brought back some of the seeds to share with others. That makes our sweet corn a direct descendant of the spoils of that war.
The coloured corn was still grown wild until the 19th century when a New Haven farmer, Noyes Darling used scientific methods to produce a new variety of corn that he hoped would be white and “fit for boiling.” He succeeded but felt that he was not a complete success because the corn still was yellow in colour.
What he thought was a disadvantage was actually an advantage to human health. Corn with deep yellow kernels, including the yellow corn available in our grocery stores, has nearly 60 times more beta-carotene than white corn. Beta-carotene is converted by your body to Vitamin A which helps your vision and supports your immune system.
Supersweet corn, which now outsells all other kinds of corn, was born in a cloud of radiation. In the 1920’s, geneticists exposed corn seeds to radiation to learn more about the normal arrangement of plant genes. They mutated the seeds by exposing them to X-rays, toxic compounds, cobalt radiation and then, in the 1940’s to blasts of atomic radiation. All the kernels were stored in a seed bank and made available for research.
In 1959, a geneticist named John Laughnan decided to taste a few of these kernels and found they were 10 times sweeter than ordinary corn and all the radiation had dissipated so they were no longer radioactive. Radiation had turned the corn into a sugar factory.
Mr. Laughnan then moved from scientist to entrepreneur and spent years developing commercial varieties of supersweet corn. His first hybrids were sold in 1961. This appears to be the first genetically modified food to enter the North American food supply, an event that has received little or no attention.
In one generation, the new extra sugary varieties replaced old fashioned corn in the market place. It proved that if you build a sweeter fruit or vegetable the consumer will choose it over the healthier bitter ones available. Today, most of the fresh corn in our supermarkets is extra-sweet and can be traced back to the radiation experiments. The kernels are white, pale, yellow or a combination of the two. The sweetest varieties approach 40 per cent sugar. The original Indian corn is now sold as seasonal decorations and no longer consumed as a food.
We have reduced the nutrients and increased the sugar and starch content of hundreds of other fruits and vegetables. Is there a way in which we can reverse this trend?
There may be a few things you can do personally. Select corn with deep yellow kernels. To recapture the lost anthocyanins and beta carotene, cook with blue, red or purple cornmeal which is still available in some supermarkets. Make a stack of blue cornmeal pancakes for Sunday breakfast and top with maple syrup.
In the lettuce section, look for arugula. Arugula, also called salad rocket, is very similar to its wild ancestor. Some varieties were domesticated as recently as the 1970’s, thousands of years after most fruits and vegetables had been modified to suit our tastes. The greens are rich in cancer-fighting compounds called glucosinolates and higher in antioxidant activity than many green lettuces.
Scallions, or green onions, are jewels of nutrition hiding in plain sight. They resemble wild onions and are just as good for you. They actually have more than 5 times more phytonutrients than many common onions do. The green portions of scallions are more nutritious than the white bulbs, so use the entire plant. Herbs are really wild plants in disguise. We have long valued them for their intense flavour and aroma which is why they have never been given a flavour makeover. They have been left alone and their phytonutrient content has remained intact.
You can use large quantities of mild tasting fresh herbs by adding one cup of mixed chopped Italian parsley and basil to a pound of ground grass-fed beef or poultry to make” herb-burgers”. I know of one person who brought back a bag of herbs from France (herbs-au-Provence) and sprinkles these herbs generously on cut up potatoes, wild yams, carrots, and many other vegetables. She adds a bit of water and lets them cook in the oven. Not only do you get great flavour but you are getting back all the missing phytonutrients.
In both Canada and the United States, our agriculture departments exert almost all their efforts on developing disease-resistant fruits and vegetables rather than creating new varieties that would enhance the disease –resistance of the consumers. The fact is they have no interest in measuring nutritional content at all.
We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t even know which nutrients they contain. So even though we are told to eat more fruits and vegetables, this would be wise advice if they actually contained the nutrients that we needed for a healthier life. And that brings me back to supplementation.
Obviously our food supply is not good enough so you may need to supplement your diet with antioxidants such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E and B-complexes which contain all the B’s along with folic acid and Vitamin B12. Getting your omega-3’s from fish is virtually essential for everyone because of the farming and contaminants in our fish supply. It turns out there is a secure place for multivitamins after all because they are your insurance. Whatever nutrients you did not get that day may be covered in your vitamin supplement.
This was not how things were meant to be but this is our reality.