We often hear about the importance of eating lots of fruits and vegetables to stay healthy. However multiple factors in our modern-day world have led to a decline in important nutrients in many crops. Coupled with the fact that only 11% of Americans are consuming the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, it’s no wonder that many people today are deficient in recommended amounts of key vitamins and minerals. More important, these nutrient deficiencies are linked to serious health problems.
How Nutrition is Lost
There are literally hundreds of factors that can contribute to nutrient loss in produce. And, each of these factors affects individual fruits or vegetables in varying degrees. But some of the most studied and significant nutrient zappers are:
- Modern farming practices – involve many techniques (seed selection, hybridization, fertilizers, pesticides) that trade off high crop yields for nutrient value
- Premature Harvest – many crops like apples and pears are picked long before they are ripe to allow for longer travel and storage. When crops are not allowed to ripen naturally, they often lose nutritional value.
- Long travel times – Produce that spends days in transport to market can lose nutritional value.
What You Can Do
There are many things you can do as a consumer to maximize the nutrient potential of your produce:
- Buying local, organic produce eliminates many of the factors that contribute to nutrient decline. Locally grown organic produce benefits from better growing conditions, better “ripeness” and freshness due to minimal travel. Locally grown organic produce may be slightly more expensive but usually packs a bigger nutritional punch. As for pesticides, learn which fruits are vegetables especially important to buy organic.
- If local, organic produce is not available, choose frozen or fresh versus canned. As frozen vegetables are flash-frozen right after harvest, they can retain more nutrients than fresh vegetables that were not picked fully ripe or spent too much time in transit or on store shelves.
- Whether fresh or frozen, choose those marked with USDA “U.S. Fancy” shield which designates the best produce which tends to be more nutrient-rich than lower grades “U.S. No. 1” and “U.S. No. 2.”
- When buying bagged lettuce or spinach, choose bags that are exposed to light as opposed to those at the back of a refrigerated case. Exposure to light can actually increase nutrient value for some produce on the store shelf.
- Consume vegetables raw as much as possible. If you are cooking veggies, use a method such as steaming or microwaving that uses little water and gentle heat. Avoid boiling or deep frying.
- Consider putting in a small organic garden and planting fruit or citrus trees. We have some tips to get you started.
- We haven’t talked much about grains here, but you should know that the same decline in nutrient value has occurred with grains as well. To insure the highest possible value, choose whole grains over processed grains as they contain more nutrient value overall. Buy organic, non-GMO whenever you can.
If you want to be sure you’re getting all the essential nutrients your body needs, consider taking a high quality multi-vitamin/mineral supplement.
Wondering what’s missing in your veggies? Read the Declining Nutrition of Fruits and Vegetables.
Journal of the American College of Nutrition
Harvard Medical School
Food and Agriculture Organization
Agricultural Research Service - USDA
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention