Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food
June 11, 2013
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By Dr. Mercola
This is an area that has absolutely captured my passion and attention. The last six months I have been devouring as much information as I can about high-performance agriculture using natural methods.
As you know, I have been one of the leaders in warning of the dangers of GMOs but I am now convinced that we need to offer the world a safe and superior alternative to GMOs. I am convinced that this is not only possible, but also less expensive both in the short and long term.
Part of the reason for this is that the nutritional content of the conventional food supply has been rapidly declining for the last 50 years as a natural consequence of increasingly poor soil conditions on modern farms, and it is getting worse.
But food has actually been getting gradually less nutritious for far longer than that, as a direct result of humans’ preferences for sweeter, starchier and less colorful fruits and vegetables.
As written in the New York Times:1
“Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.”
I believe that natural high-performance agriculture techniques such as optimizing soil microbiology through composting, and mineral balancing and the use of sea solids in the soil are exciting alternatives, and I plan on updating you soon on this project.
Sweeter Plants Were More Appealing to Ancient Farmers…
Ancient wild plants provided an astounding level of phytonutrients that are largely absent from our modern cultivated fruits and veggies. For instance, wild dandelions contain seven times more phytonutrients than spinach, and purple potatoes native to Peru contain 28 times more anthocyanins than commonly consumed russet potatoes.2
In general, you can identify the healthiest superfoods simply by looks and taste: the more bitter and the more colorful a natural food is, the more potent antioxidants and other phytochemicals it’s likely to contain.
But disease-fighting bitter or astringent foods, such as arugula, mustard greens and Brussels sprouts, are often avoided by consumers today,3 and they were similarly avoided by our ancient ancestors as access to sweeter foods increased. So, too, was the case with colorful foods, which have slowly fallen out of favor in many cases.
The evolution of corn provides one of the most telling examples. The richly colored “Indian corn” now mostly used for holiday decorating was once widely consumed, and contained far more disease-fighting antioxidants and less sugar than today’s popular pale yellow sweet corn.
The New York Times explains it well:
“Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil.
These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.”
Even Fruits Are Sweeter and Less Nutritious Than They Used to Be
The wild fruits consumed by our ancestors were smaller and resembled most closely what a blueberry is today. Modern cultivated fruits are much larger, which means they have a lot more sweet pulp inside and less skin. The sweet "pulp" or "flesh" of the fruit is where most of the fructose is, whereas the skin holds the antioxidants.
Since wild fruits were much smaller than today's fruits and thus had a much larger proportion of their volume as skin and seeds, they provided a healthy source of powerful antioxidants with limited amounts of fructose. According to Dr. Boyd Eaton, our antioxidant intake would be nearly seven times higher simply if we ate wild fruits…
Stunning Corn Comparison: Genetically Modified (GM) Vs. Non-GM
Genetic modification is also making our modern food less nutritious than it used to be, according to a report given to MomsAcrossAmerica4 by an employee of De Dell Seed Company (Canada's only non-GMO corn seed company). It offers a stunning picture of the nutritional differences between genetically modified (GM) and non-GM corn. Clearly, the former is NOT equivalent to the latter, which is the very premise by which genetically modified crops were approved in the first place. Here’s a small sampling of the nutritional differences found in this 2012 nutritional analysis:
- Calcium: GMO corn = 14 ppm / Non-GMO corn = 6,130 ppm (437 times more)
- Magnesium: GMO corn = 2 ppm / Non-GMO corn = 113 ppm (56 times more)
- Manganese: GMO corn = 2 ppm / Non-GMO corn = 14 ppm (7 times more)
GMO corn was also found to contain 13 ppm of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup Ready herbicide) compared to zero in non-GMO corn, along with extremely high levels of formaldehyde, which is a well-known carcinogenic byproduct of glyphosate metabolism. Perhaps it’s no wonder that animals, when given a choice, avoid genetically modified food. Yet, in the US upwards of 85 percent of all corn grown is now genetically modified.
There is no question that one wants to start with the highest quality seed and GMO seeds are vastly inferior to most ancient seeds. However, I believe epigenetic expression is every bit as valid in plants as it is in humans and if we optimize the plant’s nutrients through soil microbiology, we can improve the nutrient density of even GMO seeds to near optimal levels. And if these techniques are used for seeds with good genes you can far exceed those levels.
USDA Is Developing New Plants Without Regard to Nutritional Content
Unfortunately, the USDA is oblivious to this reality. Author Jo Robinson writes in the New York Times:5
“I’ve interviewed U.S.D.A. plant breeders who have spent a decade or more developing a new variety of pear or carrot without once measuring its nutritional content. We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health.”
Antioxidants are nature's way of defending your cells against attack by these free radicals, thereby helping you resist aging and disease. If you don't have adequate antioxidants to step in and neutralize free radicals, then oxidative stress tends to lead to accelerated tissue and organ damage. This is what makes antioxidants so crucial to your health.
Your diet is one of the key ways to make sure you’re getting the antioxidants, as well as the other critical vitamins and minerals, your body needs to function optimally. Yet, in developing new plant varieties, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is far more focused on creating disease-resistant plants than they are on enhancing, or even protecting, their nutritional content.
Is There a Secret to Finding More Nutritious Food?
As I said initially, I firmly believe the solution for more nutritious food is to optimize the microbiology of the soil so the microbes can provide the optimal nutrients for the plant and maximize their genetic expression. Composting, vortexed compost tea and mineral replacements are far superior to commercial fertilizers and also improve rather than degrade the quality of the soil. Ideally, you can grow these yourself or find someone locally that can do it for you. I will be going into far greater detail in future articles.
In the meantime, consuming plenty of raw, locally harvested, organic vegetables is one of the best ways to get the key nutrients your body needs, in levels that most closely replicate those found in the wild foods of our ancestors. For starters, this will ensure that you’re avoiding all GM produce, which now appears to not only be far less nutritious than non-GM food but also less contaminated with agrichemicals and their toxic byproducts. Beyond this, there are several additional measures you can take to make sure you’re getting the most nutritious food available:
- Choose brightly colored foods: Produce in shades of blue, red, purple and dark green are among the most antioxidant-rich foods available.
- Eat more bitter foods: Many of the most potent, disease-fighting compounds in food (phenols and polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates) are bitter, acrid or astringent in flavor. Expanding your diet to include these bitter-tasting foods is one of the healthiest moves you can make. Examples include grapefruit, arugula, collard greens, parsley, dandelion leaves, radicchio, cranberries, endive and pomegranates.
- Indulge in herbs and spices: Many herbs and spices remain largely unchanged from ancient times. Along with containing some of the highest antioxidant levels of all foods, herbs and spices are also very dense in other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and they also have medicinal properties. As a general rule, you really can't go wrong when using herbs and spices and I recommend allowing your taste buds to dictate your choices when cooking. However, you can also choose spices based on their medicinal benefits.
- Grow your own foods from heirloom seeds, including sprouts: This is one of the best ways to access nutrient-dense food, especially if you use heirloom seeds that have been carefully cultivated to produce the best plants possible. You can plant an organic veggie garden even in small spaces, and sprouts, which are also among the most nutrient-dense foods available, can also be grown easily at home.
- Forage for wild, edible plants: Some of the “weeds” in your backyard or local environment are incredibly nutritious and very close to the wild plants consumed by our ancestors. Dandelion, stinging nettle, prickly lettuce, chickweed, sow thistle, red clover, burdock, cattails, Japanese knotweed, and sheep sorrel are examples of wild nutrient-rich foods. While you should only consume plants you are entirely sure are not poisonous, learning to gather safe, wild edible plants is quite simple.