Nutrient Depletion of Foods

We are made from what the earth provides.

Our daily nutrition comes from the plants that form the "roots" of the human food chain. They provide us with important macronutrients; proteins, fats, and carbohydrates all are created through the sustenance that is provided from the soil. Plants also provide us with important macronutrients, the vitamins manufactured by the plant via photosynthesis and the minerals absorbed from the soils, which are obligatory for healthy cellular function.

Vitamins and minerals serve as essential components in enzymes and coenzymes (assisting enzymes), the biological catalysts that speed up chemical reactions necessary for cellular function. They work in concert to either join molecules together or break them apart in the myriad of chemical reactions that place every second within the living cell. Simply put, without enzymes and their essential vitamins and minerals life could not exist.

Reflecting on this, the calculus becomes simple: plants can't make minerals; they must absorb them from the soil -- and without minerals, vitamins don't work. Accordingly, if important minerals are depleted from our soil, they are also depleted from our bodies.

Chronic mineral deficiency leads to disease. Consequently, it is not surprising that any degradation in the mineral and nutrient content of our soils leads to a commensurate increase in nutritionally related diseases in both animal and human populations.

The bottom line is this: our physical health ultimately depends upon the health of our topsoil.

The alarming fact is that foods -- fruit, vegetables and grains -- now being raised on millions of acres of land that no longer contain enough of certain needed nutrients, are starving us -- no matter how much we eat of them. 
              - US Senate Document 264

The remarkable thing about the above declaration is that it was issued nearly eight decades ago -- in 1936! Since that time, the US and other industrialized nations have been losing arable land at an unprecedented rate. In the US topsoil is eroding at a rate today that is ten times greater than the rate of replenishment. In countries of in Africa, India and China soil erosion exceeds the replenishment rate by 30 to 40 times. Current estimates place the chronological reserves of our global topsoil at less than 50 years. As the topsoil goes, so go the vital nutrients -- and along with it, our health. 

Findings released at the 1992 RIO Earth Summit confirmed that mineral depletion of our global topsoil reserve was rampant throughout the 20th century. During that time, US and Canadian agricultural soils lost 85% of their mineral content; Asian and South American soils dropped 76%; and throughout Africa, Europe, and Australia soil mineral content was depleted by 74%. Little has been done since to forestall the inevitable exhaustion of these precious mineral stores.

In March, 2006, the United Nations recognized a new kind of malnutrition -- multiple micronutrient depletion. According to Catherine Bertini, Chair of the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition, the overweight are just as malnourished as the starving. In essence, it is not the quantity of food that is the issue; it is the quality.

Modern Agriculture Impoverishes our Soil

The earth's topsoils are a wafer-thin envelope of mineral-containing, carbon-based materials. Soils act to buffer and filter water and airborne pollutants, store critical moisture and important minerals and micronutrients, and are essential reservoirs for carbon dioxide and methane. Global warming aside, soil degradation is one of the most ominous threats to the long-term environmental sustainability of our planet.

Soil depletion was well understood in primitive societies, which would migrate every few years to new lands or would replenish the soils with organic wastes. In more recent history the western migration of Europeans to the New World witnessed families moving every few years as their dry-land farming practices repeatedly played our the soil. The first sign of nutrient exhaustion did not come from crop failure; rather it appeared as increased illness and disease amongst both the animals and humans who relied upon the land. Those who did not leave their farms or practice soil replenishment observed inevitable declines in crop production, followed by outright collapse of the land, as was witnessed in the great dust bowl formations of the 1930s.

Today, we have nowhere else to go. We can no longer simply pick up and leave for greener pastures because there are none left. We must make do with what we have; soil erosion, contamination with industrial pollutants and depletion of our limited mineral resources has now gone global. Nevertheless, modern agricultural practices continue to consume water, fuel and topsoil at alarmingly unsustainable rates, seemingly oblivious to nature's inviolate dictate to give back to the earth what we have taken. Instead of renewing and replenishing our soils, commercial agriculture has corrupted nature's natural cycles -- and for this there will be a steep price to pay.

Impoverished Soils, Impoverished Crops

Soil depletion through unsustainable agricultural practices results in an inevitable loss of nutrient content in our crops. Historical data show that the average mineral content of vegetables grown in US soils has declined precipitously over the last century. Research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004 found significant declines in the mineral and vitamin content of 43 garden crops grown in US markets. As well, an investigative report published by Life Extension Foundation in 2001 demonstrated that the vitamin and mineral content of several foods dropped dramatically between 1963 and 2000. Collard greens showed a 62% loss of vitamin C, a 41% loss of vitamin A and a 29% loss of calcium. Potassium and magnesium were down 52% and 84% respectively. Cauliflower had lost almost half of its vitamin C, thiamine and riboflavin, and most of the calcium in commercial pineapples had all but disappeared. When asked to explain the precipitous drop in the calcium content observed in commercial corn, the USDA responded that the 78% loss was not significant because "no one eats corn for calcium," unbelievably adding that the nutritional content of produce is not as important as appearance and yield.

The US data corroborate finding for vegetable crops grown between 1940 and 2002 in Great Britain, which show mineral losses ranging from 15% to 62% for common minerals and trace elements. In an earlier study, detrimental changes were found in the natural ratio of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, in the foods tested. Similarly, a Canadian study found dramatic declines in the nutrient content of produce grown over a 50 year interval to 1999. During that time, the average Canadian spud lost 57% of its vitamin C and iron, 28% of its calcium, 50% of its riboflavin and 18% of its niacin. The story was the same for all 25 fruits and vegetables analyzed. The Canadian data revealed that nearly 80% of the foods tested showed large drops in their calcium and iron content, three-quarters showed significant decreases in vitamin A, one-half lost vitamin C and riboflavin, and one-third lost thiamine.

Selective breeding of new crop varieties that place a premium on yield, appearance and other commercially desirable characteristics has also been attributed to depletion of the nutritional value of our foods. Dr Phil Warman of Nova Scotia's Agricultural College argues that the emphasis on appearance, storability and yield -- little or no emphasis on nutritional content -- has added considerable to the overall nutrient depletion of our food. The USDA standards for fruits and vegetables are limited to size, shape and color -- they do not even consider nutritional value. With standards like these, it is not surprising that you have to eat eight oranges, today, to get the same amount of vitamin A that your grandparents got from a single orange.

How nutrients are Removed from Soils

Erosion of topsoil by wind and water is accelerated by over-cultivating, over-grazing and destruction of natural ground cover. The loss of organic matter results in a concurrent loss of nitrogen, minerals and trace elements, and it reduces the ability of soil to hold moisture and support the growth of healthy plants. The nutrient demands from high-yield crops place a further burden on the limited nutritional capacity of our depleted soils. For example, in 1930 an acre of land would yield about 50 bushels of corn. By 1960, yields had reached 200 bushels per acre -- far beyond the capacity of the soil to sustain itself.

Erosion, in combination with high-yield nutrient extraction, also depletes the soil of its alkalizing minerals (calcium, potassium and magnesium). This loss of natural buffering capacity results in the release of acids from natural clay deposits and the soil becomes increasingly acidic. Conversely, over irrigation with hard (alkaline) water causes some soils to leach important minerals while accumulating others (such as calcium). As a result, the soil becomes too alkaline to sustain crop growth.

It is true that nitrate, phosphate and potassium (NPK) fertilizers, first introduced in the early 1900s, significantly increase crop yield; but, they do so at great expense.  Overuse of these chemical fertilizers has been found to accelerate the depletion of other vital macronutrients and trace elements and reduce their bioavailability to plants. NPK fertilizers will gradually reduce soil pH, rendering the soils too acidic to support beneficial bacteria and fungi. These symbiotic organisms assist the plant in absorbing nutrients from the soil. Once gone, uptake of micronutrients by plants is significantly impaired. Moreover, in acidic soils NPK application has been found to bind soil-based selenium, making it unavailable fro root absorption.

The use of NPK fertilizers to replenish the principal growth-promotion nutrients fails to address the concurrent losses of valuable micronutrients and trace elements (such as copper, zinc and molybdenum) which occur in intensively cultivated soils. According to Dr William Albrecht of the University of Missouri, the use of NPK fertilizers ultimately leads to malnutrition; attack by insects, bacteria and fungi; weed encroachment; and crop loss in dry weather. Albrecht contends that the use of chemical fertilizers to chase yield actually weakens the crop, making it more susceptible to pests and disease. Consequently, the commercial farmer has no choice but to rely on an armory of dangerous and harmful chemical pesticides to protect his crop and his investment.

Nutrient depletion forces pesticide Abuse

The weakening of our soils and crops through the indiscriminate practices of commercial agriculture creates a destructive cycle of dependence on pesticides and herbicides. The extremely toxic organochlorine (OC) and organophosphorus (OP) derivatives kill our soils by slaughtering the symbiotic bacteria and fungi that promote nutrient uptake in plants; they inactivate critical enzyme systems within the plant roots that are involved in mineral absorption; they destroy the soil microorganisms needed to create the organic mineral complexes that naturally replenish the soil.

To make matters worse, these environmental poisons end up on our dinner table. 

Dr Jerome Weisner, Science Advisor for President Kennedy, said in 1963: "The use of pesticides is far more dangerous than  radio active fallout." Unfortunately, he may have underestimated their potential. Most atmospheric radioactive fallout soon decays to harmless background levels. Pesticides, on the other hand are persistent environmental toxins that accumulate and concentrate along the food chain, their residues sequestered in the fatty tissues of the body. All of us carry a lifetime body burden of these environmental poisons, and many of us unknowingly suffer their cumulative effects.

The evidence is unassailable: human exposure to pesticides is ubiquitous and occurs most commonly through the food we eat. What is in dispute is whether low levels of exposures to these persistent environmental toxins and their residues can cause harm. Some studies refute the claim that exposure is harmful; other studies provide startling evidence that pesticide exposure can elicit harmful biological effects --  sometimes at exquisitely low levels -- as a result of chronic environmental exposure.

Furthermore, harmful synergistic effects from combinations of pesticides and chemical agents have been found to occur at normal levels of environmental exposure. In some cases, pesticide 'cocktails' have been found to elicit toxic effects at levels significantly below those expressed by the individual chemicals. In one study, a cocktail of aldicarb, atrazine and nitrate at levels approximate to that found in groundwater across the US induced endocrine, immune and behavioral changes at doses that , for the individual compounds at the same concentrations, could not be observed.

While the industry claims that pesticides and herbicides are sage and effective, a recent study suggests that women with breast cancer are give to nine time more likely to have significant levels of pesticide residues in their blood. As well, pesticides and herbicides have been linked to a wide range of human health effects, including immune suppression, hormone disruption, diminished intelligence, reproductive abnormalities, neurological and behavioral disorders, and cancer. They are also potent endocrine hormone disruptors and can be passed easily through the placenta to the unborn infant who is extremely vulnerable to toxins that disrupt the developmental process. Children are particularly susceptible to these agents because of a higher level of food intake fro their body weight and a still-maturing immune system. 

No matter how conscientious we may be, we are constantly exposed -- through the foods we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe -- to environmental levels of these toxins that may manifest in subtle or profound ways. That is why it is exceedingly important to protect yourself and your children, as much as you can, by choosing sensible dietary alternatives to commercially grown and processed foods -- the principal sources of pesticide and herbicide exposure. 

Organic Agriculture improves nutrient content

For most of human history, agriculture has used organic growing practices. Only during the last 100 years has the use of synthetic chemicals and their widely destructive consequences been introduced to the food supply. Fortunately, an increasing number of progressive growers are, today, shunning commercial growing techniques; they are, instead, returning to their organic roots and the traditional way of caring for the soil. 

The natural mulching and cultivation techniques employed through organic gardening feed the soil rather than the plant by returning many of the nutrients lost through plant growth and by encouraging the growth of beneficial fungi, nitrogen fixing bacteria, and other beneficial microorganisms. Healthy living soil, in turn, promotes the symbiosis of plants with these soil microbes, thereby enhancing the transfer of essential nutrients into the plants. In contrast to conventional agriculture, organic agriculture embraces the natural replenishing cycles of nature.

In a 2003 exposure study in Seattle, Washington, children two to four years old who consumed organically grown fruits and vegetables had urine levels of pesticides six times lower than children who consumed conventionally grown foods. According to the authors of the study, the consumption of organic fruits, vegetables and juices can reduce children's exposure levels from above to below the EPA's current guidelines, thereby shifting exposures from a range of uncertain risk to a range of negligible risk.

There is a growing body of evidence confirming the health promoting effects of organically grown foods. Studies confirm that organic crops are higher in vitamin C, iron, natural sugars, magnesium, phosphorus and other minerals and lower in harmful nitrates than conventional crops. An independent review, published in the Journal of Complementary Medicine, found that organically grown crops had markedly higher levels of nutrients for all 21 nutrients evaluated than did conventionally grown produce. Organically grown spinach, lettuce, cabbage and potatoes expressed particularly high levels of minerals.

Research conducted by the University of California (Davis) showed that organically grown tomatoes and pepper had higher levels of flavonoids and vitamin C than conventionally grown tomatoes. The health promoting effects of these secondary plant metabolites, manufactured by the plant to protect it from the oxidative damage caused by strong sunlight, are well established. High intensity conventional agricultural practices appear to disrupt the production of these natural plant metabolites, leading to a loss of flavonoid content in conventional crops. Conversely, organic growing practices are known to stimulate the plant's defense mechanisms, leading to enhanced production of these important botanical nutrients. It is precisely because organic crops are not protected by pesticides that their fruits contain higher levels of flavonoids than conventional fruits -- including up to 50% more antioxidants. A good example is the polyphenol content of red wine. This heart-healthy nutrient is found in much higher concentrations in wine made from organically grown grapes, which manufactured the nutrients to protect against a naturally occurring fungus that attacks the skin of the grape.

In Conclusion

The conveniences of modern living involve many trade-offs when it comes to eating a healthy diet. Most of us are completely unaware of the consequences of chronic exposure to persistent environmental toxins through the chemically laced foods we place daily on our dinner table. Nor do we appreciate the degree to which the nutritional value of our food supply has been bludgeoned by our over-reliance on commercial, chemically based agriculture. The fact is, unless we complement our diet with a high quality nutritional supplement, most of us will not even come close to meeting our daily nutritional requirements. Less that one-third of North Americans eat the minimum recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Now we find that even if a person accidentally does eat a vegetable, it doesn't have nearly the nutrition that nature intended. 

Except from NutriSearch's Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements, 5th Professional Edition.