Fruits and vegetables are a powerhouse of nutrients. Plus, they’re an abundant source of health-preserving phytochemicals. No doubt, veggies and fruits top the list of foods you should be eating. That’s hardly news, right? Yet, the produce you’re placing on the dinner table today may not be the same nutritionally as what past generations enjoyed when they sat down to a home-cooked meal. Here’s the question: Are fruits and vegetables less nutritious today compared to a half-century ago?
Unfortunately, aggressive agricultural methods are taking their toll on food production. The problem lies with the soil fruits and vegetables grow up in. When researchers at the University of Texas at Austin analyzed the nutritional content of 43 fruits and vegetables and compared them to values 50 years ago, they came to some unsettling conclusions. The quantity of certain key nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin B2, phosphorus, calcium, and iron are lower now than they were when similar crops were harvested half a decade ago. They even found differences in protein content between produce grown currently and in the past. For example, using data from the USDA, broccoli had 130 milligrams of calcium in 1950 but that amount is only 48 milligrams today.
Since the researchers didn’t have data on all key nutrients from the past, there could be other deficiencies as well. Where are the extra nutrients going? We now have the technology to grow plants faster than ever. Because of the rapid growth rate, plants don’t take up as many nutrients from the soil. To increase crop yield, crops grow closer together and this reduces their nutrient uptake. Plus, the soil these crops grow in is over-harvested.
How to Maximize the Nutritional Value of the Fruits and Vegetables You Eat
Plants may be shorter on nutrition than they were 50 years ago but they’re still a healthy addition to your diet. Here are some tips for maximizing the nutrition you get from the fruits and vegetables you eat.
Some studies show that crops grown organically have higher levels of some nutrients. According to a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition, organic produce offers more nutritional bang for the buck. They found that a variety of organic fruits and vegetables, including apples and carrots, have higher levels of healthful phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. What’s not so certain is whether organic produce has more vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown. If they do, the difference isn’t enormous. Still, if you eat fruits and vegetables for their antioxidant content, organic might be a better choice. Plus, you’re reducing exposure to pesticides as well. In addition, organic farming practices are more sustainable.
If buying organic is too costly for your budget, visit your local farmer’s market. Produce at the farmer’s markets is fresher since it hasn’t traveled long distances to market. When fruits and vegetables travel many miles to reach their destination, they’re exposed to heat and light. This breaks down some of the vitamins that makes them so nutritious. The produce at the supermarket may have lost a significant portion of their nutrients.
Don’t Ignore Frozen Vegetables
Frozen vegetables, in general, have a similar or even greater nutrient content than fresh vegetables. In fact, the vitamin C content of frozen vegetables is often higher than fresh. That’s because they’re harvested at their peak and frozen to preserve their nutrients. Once frozen, the nutrients are sealed in. Here’s a tip to get the most nutrient power. Buy frozen vegetables that have a seal that says “U.S. Fancy.” This indicates that the vegetables are large and have the best color. Deeper color is a mark of vegetables higher in antioxidants.
Don’t Overcook Them
Cooking vegetables in lots of water or for long periods of time destroys certain nutrients, particularly water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and B vitamins. In fact, you can lose over half of the vitamin C in some fruits and vegetables when you cook them. In addition, polyphenols in fruits and vegetables are unstable when heated, so you may lose antioxidants as well.
The solution? Keep cooking time and the amount of water you use to a minimum. Lightly steaming and sautéing are two cooking methods that preserve nutrients. Contrary to popular belief, microwaving doesn’t destroy vitamins and minerals if you keep the water to a minimum. If you use water to cook vegetables, save it and add it to soups, stews, or smoothies to boost their nutritional content.
Eat More of Them
If fruits and vegetables are less nutritious these days, make up for it by eating more of them. There’s little downside to adding more plant-based foods to your diet, so why not add more to the lunch or dinner table?
Eat the Skin Too
Did you know when you peel a fruit or vegetable, you’re removing some of the nutrients and antioxidants? For example, a peeled apple has less calcium, potassium, vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants. Another example, you find resveratrol, an antioxidant, only in the skin of grapes, not the inside. Of course, most of the pesticides are on the skin or peel as well. If possible, buy organic, at least for the “dirty dozen,” the 12 fruits and vegetables most heavily sprayed. Be sure to wash produce thoroughly. To remove the most pesticide residues, douse them in a dilute vinegar solution (3 parts water to 1 part vinegar) and give them a final rinse. A produce brush also comes in handy for washing fruits and vegetables.
The Bottom Line
Here’s the take-home message. Produce may be less nutritious than it was 50 years ago but vegetables, especially leafy greens, are still some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can put in your mouth. Plus, you can eat lots of them without consuming an abundance of calories. So, less nutritious or not, fruits and vegetables still lead the pack when it comes to keeping you healthy.
Scientific American. “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?”
NPR The Salt. “Is Organic More Nutritious? New Study Adds To The Evidence”
Br J Nutr. 2014 Sep 14;112(5):794-811. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514001366. Epub 2014 Jun 26.
Berkeley Wellness. “Fruit and Vegetable Peel Perks”
New York Times Well. “Ask Well: The Nutrients in Fruits and Veggies”
NBC News. “Nutritional Value of Fruits, Vegetables Diminishing”