The illusion of nutrient dense foods

From the Soil to Sustenance blog:

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. – Hippocrates

In my wayward vegetarian days, before finding Weston A. Price and eventually Paleo, I ate my fair share of faux food:  soy ground beef crumbles, egg substitutes made from tofu, heart-healthy margarine, and my favorite, seitan (pure wheat gluten).  For those of you that don’t know what I am talking about, check out this 30 second “public service announcement” from Ron Swanson of NBC’s Parks and Recreation.

Most of us recognize the foods listed above as imitations, but what about locally purchased vegetables, eggs, and grass-fed meats?  Clearly these whole foods are leaps and bounds ahead of the imposters, but do they contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals as nature intended?  The answer, to a great extent, depends on the care and stewardship of the soil in which they were grown.

 “Food is fabricated soil fertility.  It is food that must win the war and write the peace.  Consequently the questions as to who will win the war and how indelibly the peace will be written will be answered by the reserves of soil fertility and the efficiency with which they can be mobilized for both the present and post-conflict eras.” – Dr. William A. Albrecht (From Weston A. Price’sNutrition and Physical Degeneration)


Given how many conventional farmers manage their land, it really should not be a surprise that the nutritional quality of our food is on the decline, and has been for the better part of a century.  From a 1936 report to the US Senate:  “The alarming fact is that foods – fruits and vegetables and grains – now being raised on millions of acres of land that no longer contains enough needed minerals, are starving us – no matter how much of them we eat.” 

Unfortunately, in spite of many years of warnings, we have not made much progress.  “Highlights” from a 2004 study evaluating USDA food composition data of 43 garden crops between 1950 and 1999 show that as a group the vegetables contained:

  • 16% less calcium
  • 9% less phosphorus
  • 15% less iron
  • Protein down 6%,
  • Vitamin B2 down 38%
  • Vitamin C down 15%

2009 study looking at declining nutritional values came to the following conclusion:  “Recent studies of historical nutrient content data for fruits and vegetables spanning 50 to 70 years show apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in minerals, vitamins, and protein in groups of foods, especially in vegetables.”

And finally, we have this from Dr. David Thomas, a UK based health researcher:  “Why is it that you have to eat four carrots to get the same amount of magnesium as you would have in 1940?”

The USDA, our food watchdog, doesn’t quite seem to appreciate the problem.  According to Phyllis Johnson (head of the Beltsville USDA office), “the 78% decrease in calcium content of corn is not significant because no one eats corn for calcium.”  I suppose Phyllis would have us pop a multi-vitamin – that should do the trick.

Unfortunately the problem also exists with our meats and animal products.  According to an article in Mother Earth News, the USDA reports a 20% decrease in iron and a 59% decrease in vitamin A from 1975 in factory-farmed eggs.  Do you think it MIGHT be because of the quality of what the chickens are eating?  See Eat wild for more information about the quality of milk and meat….”

Read more on Soil to Sustenance.


Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999:

“During the past 50 years in developed countries, there have been many changes in the way vegetables and other crops are grown and distributed. Changes include cultivated varieties (cultivars) used, cultural practices (fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation), the location of major production, and distribution methods. Many persons have wondered what effect these changes may have on the nutritional value of foods.

There have been few attempts to answer this question, because of its complexity and lack of adequate data. Mayer found apparent “marked reductions” of some minerals in a comparison of United Kingdom food composition data from the 1930s and 1980s for 7 minerals in 20 fruits and 20 vegetables. She tempered her findings with cautions about the reliability and interpretation of these apparent changes [1]. A less-tempered lay comparison of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food composition data between 1975 and 1997 suggested an “alarming decline in food quality” in 12 common vegetables [2]. A former editor at Organic Gardening magazine concluded from these two reports that food quality “appears to be declining,” and asked the USDA to investigate [3]. In a letter of reply, USDA director Phyllis E. Johnson acknowledged an apparent average decline of some nutrients in 10 vegetables, based on USDA data published in 1950 and 1984, but noted 13 points needing consideration before conclusions can be drawn about their validity, magnitude and causes [4,5]. She also noted apparent substantial increases in some foods and nutrients.

Here we further examine these issues with USDA data published in 1950 and 1999 for 43 garden crops, mostly vegetables. We adjusted for differences in moisture content, a refinement not used previously. Like earlier authors, we examined changes both for the selected foods as a group, and for individual foods. We show that changes for individual foods should not be evaluated, as they have been previously, without regard to often-large uncertainties in the nutrient content data….”

And from Eat

Pasture-Based Farming Enhances Animal Welfare

Many of the news clippings below explain how farm animals benefit when they are kept out of the feedlots and allowed to mature on pasture at a normal rate of growth and production. Other items show how factory farming compromises their health and well-being. As you will see, there is a dramatic difference between the two systems of production. Choosing meat, eggs, and dairy products from grass-based farms is a highly effective way to enhance animal welfare.

New term you need to know: “by-product feedstuffs”

Fresh pasture and dried grasses are the natural diet of all ruminant animals. In factory farms, animals are switched to an unnatural diet based on corn and soy. But corn and soy are not the only ingredients in their “balanced rations.” Many large-scale dairy farmers and feedlot operators save money by feeding the cows “by-product feedstuffs” as well. In general, this means waste products from the manufacture of human food. In particular, it can mean sterilized city garbage, candy, bubble gum, floor sweepings from plants that manufacture animal food, bakery, potato wastes or a scientific blend of pasta and candy.

Here are some of the “by-product feedstuffs commonly used in dairy cattle diets in the Upper Midwest.”*

  • Candy. Candy products are available through a number of distributors and sometimes directly from smaller plants… They are sometimes fed in their wrappers…. Candies, such as cull gummy bears, lemon drops or gum drops are high in sugar content.
  • Bakery Wastes. Stale bread and other pastry products from stores or bakeries can be fed to dairy cattle in limited amounts. These products are sometimes fed as received without drying or even removal of the wrappers.
  • Potato Waste is available in potato processing areas, and includes cull potatoes, French fries and potato chips. Cull fresh potatoes that are not frozen, rotten, or sprouted can be fed to cows either whole or chopped. Potato waste straight from a processing plant may contain varying amounts of inedible or rotten potatoes. French fries and chips contain fats or oils from frying operations.
  • Starch. Unheated starch is available from some candy manufacturers and sometimes may contain pieces of candy.
  • Pasta is available from pasta plants and some ingredient distributors as straight pasta or in blends with other ingredients, such as candy.

*This list is excerpted from “By-Product Feedstuffs in Dairy Cattle Diets in the Upper Midwest,” published in 2008 by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Healthy Eggs:  What We Knew in 1932

In the 1930s, animal scientists were trying to determine the best diet for cows, pigs, and chickens that were raised in confinement. It was a time of trial and error.

In a 1993 experiment conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, breeding hens were taken off pasture and fed a wide variety of feed ingredients. When the birds were fed a diet that was exclusively soy or corn or wheat or cottonseed meal, the chickens didn’t lay eggs or the chicks that developed from the eggs had a high rate of mortality and disease.

But when birds were fed these same inadequate diets and put back on pasture, their eggs were perfectly normal. The pasture grasses and the bugs made up for whatever was missing in each of the highly restrictive diets.

“The effect of diet on egg composition.” Journal of Nutrition 6(3) 225-242. 1933.

Could This be the Tipping Point?

On January 30th, the Humane Society released a video of extreme animal cruelty taken by an undercover reporter working at the Hallmark Meat Packing Co. in Chino, California. The video shows pictures of sick and injured cattle being prodded by forklifts and shocked with electric probes in an effort to get them to stand up. “Downer” cattle—those that are too sick or lame to walk—cannot be slaughtered according to federal law. ….”

More on Eat


1 Comment

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One response to “The illusion of nutrient dense foods

  1. Great post . I found these article comments thought-provoking and solution-oriented on the Soil to Sustenance site. Rock Dust does not get much press probably because there are no sexy billion dollar patents that you can derive from it the way you can with Roundup, Glyphosate or GMO seed . ***D. | May 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Reply
    Rock dust is excellent for gardens, flowers and even lawns if you can afford it. Sadly, it’s kind of expensive, but on a small scale (just for food growing purposes) it is well worth it. I even revived a shrub that was my favorite in the fall because it always has tiny bright red leaves (I don’t know what kind it is because it was on the property when we purchased our home) after my DH stupidly used Roundup a couple of years ago. There was no wind that day, but the air currents still carried it to my bush. NEVER again will I allow him to even buy roundup. He hates dandelions in the lawn; I say weeds of all kinds in a lawn are the sign of a healthy, non-chemically treated lawn! He finally *gets it* now, I think.
    Rock dust is great stuff. So was this article!

    soiltosustenance | May 7, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Reply
    Thanks! I am also a big fan of rock dust – When I first set up my farm, I spread about 15 tons of local quarry dust over about 1.5 acres. Along with all of the horse poo, it has made a huge difference.

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