The Secret Life of Vegetables
Is our food as nutritious as we think it is?
Millennial carrots vs 1940’s carrots
Recently I have been learning that our foods aren’t as nutritious as we think they are, not compared to how many nutrients they have provided us in the past. I was shocked to learn that produce we buy these days is on average 48% less nutritional than 70-80 years ago! Levels of iron, manganese, copper, zinc, and selenium are all at lower levels in the soil.
This is partly due to farming methods today.
Historically crops were grown in rotation, so the same patch of soil would have different crops growing on it each year. This helps to naturally fertilise the soil.
These days land is worked more intensively to get maximum yield out of minimum growing time and care given to the crops. Now same crop is often grown in the same field again and again. This means the soil becomes deficient in nutrients.
We have to think of soil as a living thing. Unfortunately rather than the use of crop rotation and natural fertilisers like manure, chemicals are used as an easy option in farming today. But you can not replicate the processes of nature with chemical substitutes and get the same results. Nature and Mother Earth knows best. If we interfere with the crops we interfere with the effect they have on us and our health.
Chemicals are artificial and lacking in biodiversity, micronutrients and organic goodness naturally found in the soil. The combination of intense farming and overuse of chemicals is partly to blame for the lacking nutritional value we are experiencing in produce today.
70 years ago farming was much simpler, intuitive and more manual than it is now. Farming was on a smaller scale. Crops were allowed to be out of season, smaller and not the ‘perfect shape’.
Nutrition at the source
Have you considered if where you get your food from makes a difference?
Supermarket produce isn’t often the best quality. It is produced on a vast scale, prioritising quantity over quality. Frequently it is picked and stored at low temperatures which preserves the produce, but over time nutrients are lost! How appetising does a freshly picked apple sound compared to one that is already 6+ months old?
I’m sure we’ve all heard about buying more produce from farmers markets, direct from the farmers themselves. Their produce is a lot fresher, is seasonal and more likely to retain more nutrients compared to supermarket stuff.
Another reason to buy farm fresh, is the produce is dirty. That’s right - the dirt on the veg is good for you. The bacteria living on the outsides of the fruits and veg is super healthy for your insides as it helps to build good bacteria in your microbiome (in your gut). This isn’t usually present on supermarket produce because the majority is heavily cleaned before it gets to you.
Shopping with your local farmer you may find you can often get a better deal on the price, especially if you buy a few things at a time, become a regular and can barter a few deals.
Additionally, you can ask the farmer questions about the crops, the farming method and about what produce is good right now. They know their stuff! Make your local farmer your friend - get to know the hands that feed you!
This is one of my goals for this year - to make an effort to buy less produce from supermarkets and more from the local farmers markets and farm shops.
All kale isn’t the same!..
.... this is true with any crop in fact.
This is something else that has been highlighted to me recently. Due to differences in location, soil quality, growing conditions, rainfall, hours of sunshine etc the nutrients present in the produce we eat differs from one part of the country to the next. This is especially true for crops across the world, but this can also happen on a much smaller scale, on one farm for example, one field could provide much more nutritious crops than another field.
One way to counteract this is to try to buy your produce from a variety of places, not just relying on a single source for your kale, blackberries, potatoes or whatever else is on your shopping list. And keep your shopping list varied... eating a variety of foods is the best way to get maximum nutrients into your body!
Organic vs non organic
What’s your opinion of organic produce? Think it seems really expensive and not sure what for? Or that it’s worth it and you really appreciate the difference?
The main thing we often think about is the cost. You are paying for what you get - an extra level of care goes into the food with organic produce. Mainly though, you are paying for what you don’t get... Confused? Let me explain.
Conventional produce is treated with herbicides (to stop weeds growing), pesticides (to kill bugs and pests that would eat the plant) and fungicides to ensure maximum yield from the crop.
Herbicides are designed to kill weeds and other plants by starving the nutrients out of them. The herbicides sprayed on the crops do not kill the crops, but are absorbed by the plant and stored within them. These stored herbicides do not go anywhere from the plant until they become our food, and we ingest them.
Pesticides are designed to kill bugs and pests by destroying their stomach. When a bug eats some of the plant it ingests these chemicals which make the bugs stomach destroy itself from the inside out, which in turn kills the bug. Pesticides are sprayed onto the plants just like herbicides. Do you wonder what this does to your stomach?
These herbicides and pesticides sprayed onto the conventional non-organic produce we buy and eat have been shown to interfere with our insides just like they are designed to do with the bugs and weeds. They have been linked to many things including heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, anorexia, aggression, depression and gastrointestinal disorders. WOW. Scary isn’t it?
Glyphosate, the toxin found in most herbicides, has been found present in 45% of Europe’s top-soil. It was detected in the urine of three-quarters of Germans who were tested, and its residue can be found in everything from biscuits, cereals and in 60% of the U.K.'s bread! So it’s not just on the greens you see in the supermarkets!
What about meat and dairy? Meat, poultry and dairy cows are fed antibiotics and hormones to treat diseases, promote growth and kill bacteria and infections. These get stored within their bodies (the meat) and become concentrated. They are also passed into the cows milk. This is how hormones and antibiotics get into the food chain, which is concentrated into our bodies and can be harmful to us. Learning this horrified and disgusted me so much it was one of the reasons I started on my plant-based path.
While organic produce might not offer you a lot more in terms of nutritional value (although that is another debate in itself) it does offer you a safer way of avoiding unnecessary pollutants in your food. You don’t have to eat any of these nasty and potentially dangerous chemicals and toxins. In organic farming there are strict regulations on what is and isn’t allowed to be used on organic produce. They are also the safest way to avoid GMO’s (a topic for another blog post!).
Another benefit of buying organic is that it tastes better (I have found 90% of the time), with more flavour than the conventional alternatives.
So does this mean I have to empty the cupboards and start again?
Don’t worry, you don’t suddenly have to empty your kitchen and buy all organic. It is good to be aware and make changes over time. However you can shop smart as some things are less contaminated than others, so you can save yourself a few pennies.
A good rule to go by is: if you eat the skin, buy organic. If you don’t eat the skin, you can get away without buying organic.
For example, avocados, you don’t eat their skin, just the flesh inside. So you are safe to buy conventional non-organic avo.
Here is a list of the most contaminated produce that we should aim to buy organic - also referred to as the "dirty dozen":
The "clean fifteen" below are generally safe to buy non-organic:
*I would exclude corn from this list because the non-organic crop can often be found to be genetically modified.
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To avoid the residue from sprays it is always a good idea to wash your produce well with water before you use it, organic or not.
Now, having explained the importance of organic toxin-free food, I will conclude by going back to how we could get the most nutrients into our food.
The future is magic!
.... actually it’s permaculture. What is permaculture? I’ve only recently learnt about this too, but it makes so much sense.
Permaculture is a holistic way of producing food that aims to achieve a harmony between the earth, humans, plants and animals. It is designed to be a sustainable practice, working with the ways of nature.
The use of unnatural chemicals, pesticides and herbicides is kept to an absolute minimum (not at all if possible) and only used as a last resort when absolutely necessary. The way the system is designed is so that you use natural methods to fertilise the soil and feed the plants (think compost, worms, and ‘worm tea’ (!) [basically wormy-compost juice]. 🐛
Crops that compliment each other are planted together to help each other. For example, sweet corn and pumpkins make good ‘companions’ because the pumpkin vines shade the ground for the corn plant, and the corn plants provide dappled shade for the pumpkins.
I visited a permaculture garden recently and was given personal tour. It is so fascinating to see everything growing in harmony. The plants work together so that minimum human input is needed.
This type of gardening can sometimes look messy and mixed up compared to what we are used to, when everything is in organised sections. But this way of producing food is fantastic in terms of nutrition - the plants are developed in an ecosystem with a variety of nutrients, the crops are rotated, the soil is treated as a living thing. Plus minimum chemicals and toxins are involved so there is much much less of a risk to our health.
To be doing this on a large scale is probably quite futuristic thinking, it may be a long long time until anything like this is main-stream. I learnt it takes a while to set up a permaculture ecosystem as it is quiet intensive to begin with. But once the system is in place the crops take minimum effort to take care of.
The good thing is we can start building our own little permaculture gardens. No need to start a full scale allotment though, just begin by trying to grow something simple in a pot at home, and progress from there. Herbs are good start because you can grow them in small spaces and they aren’t difficult to grow or look after. Plus they are super nutritious. Just be mindful of the quality of seeds you start with. Choose the best possible, ideally organic, for the best plants. This is certainly something I want to implement and experiment with in my life.
I hope to have inspired you to consider your food, what you are buying, what is or isn’t in it and where it comes from.
If you have any questions about anything please don’t hesitate to message me!
Just to summarise...
Tips for selecting the most nutritious foods:
Buy ‘dirty dozen’ produce organic.
Consider where you get your produce from - your money is your vote for the produce you want to support
Could you get to the farmers market or your local farm shop more often?
Eat a variety of foods.
Buy from a variety of sources.
Attempt to grow your own - if only starting small!
Thanks for reading this far! Your health with thank you for it.