Are Your Veggies Less Nutritious?

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen — 14 February 2023

In a new feature at the latest “for your entertainment” magazine, National Geographic, there is an amusing piece titled “Fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they used to be”.  It may be for subscribers only in the U.S., but can also be found here.

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Some of you may be confused to hear NatGeo (as it is affectionately known) being referred to as  “a for-your-entertainment” magazine.  You probably think that it is an “almost scientific journal” from the National Geographic Society.

Unfortunately, you would be mostly wrong:

“In September 2015, the National Geographic Society moved the magazine to National Geographic Partners, in which 21st Century Fox held a 73% controlling interest. In December 2017, a deal was announced for Disney to acquire 21st Century Fox, including the interest in National Geographic Partners.  The acquisition was completed in March 2019. NG Media publishing unit was operationally transferred into Disney Publishing Worldwide.”

The Society re-tells this story as: “This joint-venture enterprise combines National Geographic’s global television channels, publications, media, and products and allows us to return a portion of the proceeds from these assets to fund our non-profit work.”  And while I am sure that this joint-venture enterprise is very profitable for the Society, how much (if any) of the venture they own and how much control (if any) over content and message they have is not known. 

Disney Publishing is subsidiary of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, which itself is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company which is “an American multinational, mass media and entertainment conglomerate.” [ Wiki ]  No science there. 

All that said, like PBS Nature programming, the National Geographic brand hires the best nature photographers and videographers in the world and they do absolutely exquisite work – often mind-boggling beautiful.  In my opinion, much of that great work is tainted by the over-voicing of overly sentimental non-scientific claptrap about nature, its animals and its plants, and many of the video offerings are best watched with the sound off.  

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Now, back to the veggies! 

The NatGeo piece carries a sub-title of “Mounting evidence shows that many of today’s whole foods aren’t as packed with vitamins and nutrients as they were 70 years ago, potentially putting people’s health at risk.”  We can classify that statement as “mostly false”. 

There is some truth to the fact that some studies have found that some modern vegetables and grains have lower percentages of some nutrients (consisting of specific vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates) than stored samples from the 1950s.  The differences are generally small and not universal to all vegetables, fruits or grains. 

But, let me cut to the bottom line first, then explain why these much-touted stories add up to a big nothing. 

The best overall evaluation is in a study published in 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (Volume 23, 2004 – Issue 6) titled: “Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999”.  [ .pdf file here ]. 


We compare USDA nutrient content data published in 1950 and 1999 for 13 nutrients and water in 43 garden crops, mostly vegetables. After adjusting for differences in moisture content, we calculate ratios of nutrient contents, R (1999/1950), for each food and nutrient.”

Results: As a group, the 43 foods show apparent, statistically reliable declines (R < 1) for 6 nutrients (protein, Ca, P, Fe, riboflavin and ascorbic acid), but no statistically reliable changes for 7 other nutrients. Declines in the medians range from 6% for protein to 38% for riboflavin. When evaluated for individual foods and nutrients, R-values are usually not distinguishable from 1 with current data.”

And finally:

Conclusions: We suggest that any real declines are generally most easily explained by changes in cultivated varieties between 1950 and 1999, in which there may be trade-offs between yield and nutrient content.

Now, some of the details:

One study on wheat found:   “…there has been a global trend of altered wheat grain quality characterized by an increase in non-structural carbohydrates and an impoverishment in total protein and mineral nutrients concentrations during the last 166 years. This trend has been especially prominent since the 1960s and linked to the introduction of higher yielding short-strawed varieties….”.  They tried very hard to link the minor change to increased CO2 and higher temperatures, but in the end found a shift to short-strawed varieties as a probable cause.  Short-strawed varieties have less tendency to shatter (shattering is when the seed grains, as in wheat and rice, fall to the ground from the stem and are thus lost to harvesting).    This diagram from the study shows the relationship between the introduction of short-strawed wheat varieties and yield:

The short-strawed variety introduction begins in 1968 ( the dashed line in the diagram is drawn at 1950, and not at 1968) and by the 1990s, yield has essentially  more than doubled.  It appears that cultivars in the late 90s thru the turn of the century settled in to a weight for 1000 kernels of 28-42 grams.  This is an indication of kernel size.  In 2010, harvest yield has an eye-balled average of 5 tons per hectare (1 hectare is about 2.5 acres).

In a study of Australian vegetables over time, the authors found it was not possible to compare results with older results due to changes in measurement techniques – a case of apples and oranges:  “In conclusion, this scoping review provides a comprehensive evaluation on the change in iron content of Australian vegetables and legumes. It highlights a paucity of data on iron content over the past 100 years with most being collected between the 1980 and 2018. Based on the available limited data, and due to variations in sampling, analytical techniques and likely differences in growing location and season, no definitive temporal trends could be established.”

There are several other studies mentioned in the NatGeo piece – some promoting biodynamic farming techniques, some just alarmist in nature and intent. 

And one more thing:  The major concern seems to be that if too many people eat only grains and vegetables (become “vegans”), and eat no meat, that they will suffer the effects of malnutrition, especially in the poorest of countries.  Of course, the poorest in all nations already suffer the effects of malnutrition – vegan or not.  And for concerns about vitamin or mineral deficiencies, the salient fact is that all of these can be corrected or prevented with a daily “A-Z  Vitamin and Mineral Supplement” tablet which can be provided at a cost of less than ½ of a U.S. cent per day (0.0037 Euros per day).  That cost is U.S. bulk wholesale – at a grander scale, like a national program, the  cost would be appreciably less.  

That wholesale price comes to $ 1.61 per person per year.  (Less than the cost of a single candy bar in the U.S.)  In India, where much of the concern is centered, a bottle of Coca Cola cost about $ 0.46 (0.43 Euros).

In the real world, this type of intervention is possible. For example, in the mid-2000s, my wife and I organized a nutrition program for school children along the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti – working with the Dominican federal Department of Education. The program provided de-worming medication (manufactured for the program locally) for every elementary school child followed by specially formulated “daily children’s poverty vitamins” [ see this .pdf file for a formulation ]  made available to us through the non-profit Vitamin Angels for the cost of shipping from the manufacturer in the United States which was covered by our organization, LDS Humanitarian Services. The cost of the program was minimal for several years of medication and vitamins for thousands of kids – and mostly consisted of the hard work of the staff of the Department of Education and hundreds of poorly paid but dedicated teachers.

Bottom Lines:

1.  The vitamin and mineral composition of vegetables and grains is determined by multiple factors but primarily by the exact cultivars being grown and the local factors of soil condition/composition and growing conditions. 

2.  There are natural trade-offs between yields – which include fruit and grain sizes as well as total yield – and specific measurable vitamin and mineral content given as percentages or content per weight. 

3.  Further tradeoffs grow out of (please ignore the pun) the needs of today’s farmers to grow produce that can be packed, held in storage, shipped and made available in stores while maintaining their appearance and freshness.  Most of this is genetics – which goes back to point #1.

4.  Vegan diets can be nutritionally sound if care is taken and vitamin and mineral supplementation is provided.

5.  The benefits of plentiful food – grains, vegetables and fruits – far outweigh any small decrease in any vitamin or mineral content of any one fruit, vegetable, grain or other food item.

6.  The science that today’s fruits and vegetables are “less nutritious” is partially true but also may be just a result of different measurement techniques.

There is nothing there to be concerned about.

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Author’s Comment:

My opinion is that data collected for one purpose, in this case for government health departments determination of recommended diets (such as USDA’s MyPlate) have been re-purposed by so-called “health advocates” to run yet-another scare campaign.

There is nothing wrong with our food supply.  At the same time, we all could probably eat a better, healthier diet, but in the long run, diet is probably not the overriding determining factor of either health or longevity.

When my wife and I had little kids, we were very careful with their diets as is quite proper – but most importantly, we saw that they ate plenty of a wide variety of  foods.  Most of which we grew or raised ourselves. 

I am older now, and my wife has to encourage me to eat. 

The best advice I ever heard on this issue was from one of my early-life merchant mariner captains after his years-long study of dietary issues:  “Eat your chow!”

Remember to start your comment with the name of the person you are addressing, when not just making a general comment.  This makes for better conversations.

Thanks for reading.

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via Watts Up With That?

February 15, 2023 at 04:05AM

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