Not everything that is sold as fresh in supermarkets is actually fresh and, even when it is, it might not be that good for you. Creative and colourful advertising from supermarkets has given us a false impression that what is being sold is actually healthy, whereas the truth is that in many cases this is misleading. In the pursuit of getting you the fruit and vegetables you need, farmers supplying the supermarkets have to pick their produce far too early which causes a loss of nutrient density.

Unfortunately, there’s more bad news. Mass-production farming methods such as the abandonment of arable farming (in which soil is allowed to regenerate, and nutrients re-filter) alongside rulings that state produce must look good, forces farmers to breed strains for factors such as appearance and yield over nutrition. All these factors mean that the density of the micro-nutrients in our produce has dropped drastically over the last 50-60 years.

The following studies all found an alarming decrease in nutrient density over a variety of different minerals from a variety of different produce. 

One of the earlier studies to break news of this trend was published in 2004 by Donald Davis. Entitled Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999, the paper shows the results of the density of 43 garden crops for 13 nutrients and how the data changed between 1950 and 1999. The results show that for six nutrients—protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (Vitamin B2), and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)—the decline was between 6% (for protein) and 38% (for riboflavin).

ABritish Food Journal study on nutrient density from 1930 to 1980 found that in 20 different vegetables the average potassium content had dropped 14%, calcium content 19%, and iron content 22%. In general, the comparison of mineral content over this period shows significant reductions in magnesium, iron, copper, and potassium in fruit—and calcium, magnesium, copper, and sodium in vegetables.

Another study by Kushi Institute uncovered the same alarming trend. When analysing nutrient levels in food based on USDA data from 1975 to 1997, it was found that Vitamin A levels had decreased 21%, calcium levels 27%, Vitamin C levels 30%, and iron levels 37%.

One more study, reported by the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2002, analysed food tables prepared by scientists between 1951 and 1999. It showed marked decreases in the nutrient levels in fruits and vegetables bought in Canadian supermarkets, and showed that potatoes had lost 100 percent of their Vitamin A and 57 percent of their Vitamin C, and even concluded that today’s consumers would have to eat eight oranges to get the same amount of Vitamin A that their grandparents gained from eating one orange!

Buy local

How do you solve this? My advice is to seek out local farmers’ markets—they are great for buying local produce. Local produce will have more nutrients than non-local, and supporting your local community is an added bonus. Shortening the supply chain will lead to the crops being fresher and picked at a more optimal time. 

It’s so much better for you and for the farmer. If you are unable to buy from a local farmers’ markets, then it’s worth noting that frozen produce might contain less pesticides than fresh because they don’t need to be rushed to the store and will be picked at the peak of ripeness. In this way, you’re buying ‘local’ even if it’s shipped frozen. Of course, there’s an inherent risk that a given produce hasn’t been looked after in the delivery chain, but there’s not a lot you can do about that and it might be a risk worth taking. 

Grow your own

You might consider this unlikely, maybe you have no garden, no access to an allotment or simply not enough time. Well, you don’t need to be a farmer to grow your own food, you don’t even need a garden. Systems like hydroponics or aeroponics bring the farm into the home (or onto the patio – light dependant).

 “Hydroponics is a subset of hydroculture, which is a method of growing plants without soil by using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Terrestrial plants may be grown with only their roots exposed to the mineral solution, or the roots may be supported by an inert medium, such as perlite or gravel” – Wikipedia.

“Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or an aggregate medium. The word “aeroponic” is derived from the Greek meanings of aer and ponos. Aeroponic culture differs from both conventional hydroponics, aquaponics, and in-vitro growing” – Wikipedia.

Systems might yield up to 30% more produce, 3x faster and, in the case of aeroponics, with 98% less water. It is simple and effective and because you control what goes into it, you can keep it healthy and harvest it at the peak of its freshness.

Organic

If you can buy local and also organic, that’s even better, but be aware that the common misconception is that organic food is pesticide-free whereas in fact it is just much more controlled, with some pesticides reduced and certain ones or methods banned. So, despite the considerably higher cost, you are still consuming some toxins that will be harming your body. These chemicals are sometimes misplaced within organic food by spray drifting from nearby non-organic farms. It is also estimated that some samples, in the following example, are present due to mislabelling or even fraud.

That said, organic food does tend to contain less than a third of the toxins found in non-organically grown produce. A Consumers Union research into whether organic foods really do have less pesticides found that:

“73% of conventionally grown foods had at least one pesticide residue, while only 23% of organically grown samples of the same crops had any residues. More than 90% of the USDA’s samples of conventionally-grown apples, peaches, pears, strawberries and celery had residues, and conventionally-grown crops were six times as likely as organic to contain multiple pesticide residues. The California data (based on tests with less sensitive detection limits) found residues in 31% of conventionally grown foods and only 6.5% of organic samples, and found multiple residues nine times as often in conventional samples. CU tests found residues in 79% of conventionally grown samples and 27% of organically grown samples, with multiple residues ten times as common in the former. The levels of residues found in organic samples were also consistently lower than levels of the same pesticides found in conventional samples, in all three sets of residue data.”

However, there’s no need to fear non-organic food neither, as the content very rarely gets close to the limits that national bodies consider unsafe. Non-organic food simply contributes to the amount of work your body has to do to remove toxins. The harder your body has to work on removing toxins from your body, the less it has available to recover from training.

Seasonal

Should we prioritise eating fresh produce when it is in season? The answer lies in considering the supply chain. If you eat produce when it is in season in your local area, you need to know how far it has actually travelled and whether it was at peak ripeness when it was picked. This will help to inform you on its nutritional value—buying seasonally and local should mean you are getting produce at the peak of their freshness. 

However, if you eat only seasonal produce you might miss out on the breadth of beneficial micro-nutrients available in the variety of colours on offer. A great way to think about variety is to ‘eat the rainbow’, i.e. as many different coloured fruit and vegetables as possible. The range of colours in fresh produce and, in particular anything brightly-coloured, will have a wide and varied list of micro-nutrients that will be of benefit to you, so, where possible, eat a wide variety of in-season goods… it’s as simple as that!

For more information:

This is an extract taken from my book ‘The Guide to Truly Effective Cycling’. If this has sparked your interest, I urge you to take a further look at my book, which can be found on Amazon.

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