Bigger, Brighter, Blemish-Free, and No Nutrient Density
A walk through the produce aisle of any grocery store today gives the impression of abundance. The fruits and vegetables lining the shelves are most likely larger, brighter, and more cosmetically unblemished than at any other time in history. However, the actual nutritional quality of those fruits and vegetables is an afterthought. The industrial agricultural system, which dominates farming landscapes and our larger food economy, prioritizes food varieties that promise the most incredible yields. Shelf stability, cosmetic appearance, and the ability to withstand extensive shipping times and distances are other vital elements and characteristics that factor into deciding which crops (and varieties) to grow. The nutrient density of those foods is an afterthought, at best.
The apples and eggplants you eat today might be more brightly colored than those your grandparents ate, but they are also most likely significantly less nutritious. Behind that perfectly manicured appearance of abundance, most of the fruits and vegetables we purchase have significantly fewer nutrients today than in the past. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a report that analyzed data from 43 common garden crops between the years 1950 to 1999. The research and data showed “statistically reliable declines” for six vital nutrients in those garden crops. The levels of protein, calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamins B2 and C were found to be significantly lower in 1999 than in earlier decades.
Of course, any backyard gardener most likely has empirical evidence for this loss of nutrient density in many everyday food items. The taste of a carrot grown in your compost-rich raised garden bed is infinitely richer than the watery, bland texture and taste of industrially produced carrots sold on the shelves of your local supermarket. Similarly, the pale yellow yolks of chicken eggs sold at your grocery store hardly resemble the dark orange hues of free-range eggs from the flock of hens you allow to run wild through your backyard.
For millions of consumers nationwide, accessing healthier and more nutritionally dense food has been a critical nutrition goal. Over the past 13 years, the number of farmer’s markets across the United States has grown by 76 percent, according to recent data from the USDA. Though there certainly still are “food deserts” where fresh, healthy produce and other food items are impossible to find, at least 8,268 farmer’s markets are listed in the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory or about one farmer’s market for every 38,000 people.
Though individuals may be able to substitute those insipid supermarket tomatoes for organic, Brandywine heirloom tomatoes, health food brands inevitably face a more formidable challenge when sourcing nutritionally dense food items across their often extensive supply lines. Below, we will briefly explore some of the challenges that come with the issue of nutrient density in the food we eat. Specifically, we will examine why many health food brands need help to create supply chains with farmers producing healthy and nutrient-dense food products. To end, we’ll turn our attention to some recent developments promoted by the BioNutrient Institute that could fundamentally transform how consumers search for the healthiest and most nutrient-dense food items available.
The Challenges of Nutrient Density in Food
Let’s start with a definition: Nutrient density in the foods we eat can be defined as the proportion of beneficial ingredients to the food’s energy content for the amount that is commonly consumed. The National Cancer Institute says that nutrient-dense food is “high in nutrients but relatively low in calories. Nutrient-dense foods contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. Examples of nutrient-dense foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk products, seafood, lean meats, eggs, peas, beans, and nuts.”
However, one of the significant issues with assessing nutrient density in food products is that so much depends on specific agricultural practices. As we stated above, the nutrient density of a carrot grown in barren soils and “fed” with high doses of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) fertilizer will be lacking the enormous variety of trace vitamins and minerals that would be found in a carrot grown in a compost-rich, fertile garden soil.
A 2019 study that proposed implementing a nutrient density score that includes food groups and nutrients to better align with dietary guidance stated the following:
Because current nutrient profiling (NP) models may not fully capture the healthfulness of foods, there is a case for advancing a hybrid NP approach that considers both nutrients and desirable food groups and food ingredients. Creating a nutrient- and food-based NP model may provide a more integrated way of assessing a food’s nutrient density. Hybrid nutrient density scores will provide for a better alignment between NP models and the DGA, a chief instrument of food and nutrition policy in the United States. Such synergy may lead ultimately to improved dietary guidance, sound nutrition policy, and better public health.
Unfortunately, much of the grassroots action against the problems raised by industrial and corporate agriculture has focused on monitoring and eliminating certain elements in our food. Significant advocacy efforts are to identify and limit pesticide residues, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), antibiotics, and other harmful chemicals that routinely turn up in our food. In essence, the soil-destroying practices of industrial monoculture agriculture have forced us to increase scrutiny of what nutrients are in our food.
However, advocating for fresh food products that are also nutrient dense requires a more holistic focus that considers the specific agricultural practices related to food production.
Nutrient-Dense Foods in the Supply Chain: A Structural Problem
Health food brands face a specific challenge in finding reliable and sustainable sources for the nutrient-dense foods they require to elaborate the products they manufacture and distribute. Generally, the seasonality of organic food crops can create difficulties for organic growers to meet increasing supply chain demand. Much of the organic produce industry has shifted towards intensive monocultures of specific crops grown according to USDA organic specifications to respond to this problem. Though this may very well limit the number of harmful pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other chemical residues that can be used on a given crop, it does little to ensure that organic foods are any more nutrient-dense than “conventional” produce. Large-scale monocultures of any crop will most likely lead to barren soils and predictably nutrient-poor crops. Unfortunately, the growing demand for organic food across supply chains may contribute to less nutrient-dense foods.
From an agricultural perspective, the nutrient density of any given raw food product depends chiefly on the health of the soil where the crop was grown or the animal was raised. Though some scientists believe that the introduction of big data into farming and further crop germplasm development (i.e., a “2nd Green Revolution) might help to address the issue of sustainable production of nutrient-dense foods, others believe a renewed focus on holistic soil health is the key to restoring the nutrient density of the foods we eat.
Numerous studies have laid clear how excessive tillage and the widespread use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers negatively affect overall soil health. Essentially, the industrial agriculture “recipe” of tillage, herbicides, and synthetic inputs reduces crop mineral micronutrient uptake by phytochemical production.
Today, many farmers within the permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and traditional organic communities are showing how no-till agricultural practices, microbial inoculants, the generous use of compost and mulch that build soil organic matter, and other similar regenerative agricultural practices can increase crop micronutrient and phytochemical content. Caring for the soil directly leads to healthier and more nutrient-dense foods.
The problem is that it can be challenging to find farmers, ranchers, and producers who can provide a reliable source of nutrient-dense food products grown in a regenerative fashion that seeks to protect and improve the health of the soil.
A 2021 study on the role of the food industry in introducing more nutrient-dense foods to the broader public states that:
Transformational change is needed in food systems and supply chains to address the complex sustainability, taste, and cost issues. An emerging movement called regenerative agriculture (a holistic, nature-based approach to farming) provides a pathway to delivering sustainable foods at an affordable cost to consumers. A broad coalition among academia, government, and the food industry can help to ensure that the food supply concurrently prioritizes sustainability and nutrient density in the framework of consumer-preferred foods.
Though regenerative agriculture practices can undoubtedly be practiced on large farms, producing food that takes soil health seriously generally benefits from what author Wes Jackson calls an increase in the “eyes-to-acre ratio,” or increasing the number of people who farm on a smaller scale. Caring for the soil across a 10,000-acre monoculture of wheat or corn is understandably more complex than a diversified 100-acre farm where row crops are rotated into the pasture on a seasonal basis to allow the soil food web to flourish.
The University of Michigan finds that large-scale family farms and nonfamily industrial farms account for only 4.8 percent of farms but 57.4 percent of production (in $). Small-scale family farms represent nearly 90 percent of U.S. farms but only 21.5 percent of production. Though these statistics may paint a grim reality, it also showcases an opportunity to bolster the production of nutrient-dense foods on smaller-scale family farms. Health food brands can help to encourage this increase in nutrient-dense food production that cares for the precious resource of the soil by making the extra effort to search for those producers and develop long-standing relationships across the supply chain. Reliable, large-scale purchasers ensure a solid economic base for small-scale farmers and can allow steps to be taken to increase production.
Nutrient Density and the Data-Driven Future
Imagine walking through a supermarket in the year 2035. Hopefully, there will be fewer sugar-coated cereal made from GMO grains and more locally produced oats and nut granolas. Whatever is for sale on those supermarket shelves, however, one noticeable difference might be that all shoppers are dutifully scanning the food items with their smartphones. In the near future, consumers may have direct access to a spectrometer incorporated into a smartphone or similar device that will allow them to determine the nutritional quality of a specific food product in real-time. Instead of reading a vague nutritional label, this device will allow consumers to choose which food products live up to their billings.
Though this may seem like a distant, sci-fi dream, the BioNutrient Institute is one organization developing and supporting instruments that can be used to give real-time readings on the parameters of nutrient density in any given food product. According to their website, “our objective…is to provide anyone who desires the ability to honestly assess food in real-time. To be able to discern between this bag of carrots or that, or to be able to assess the plants while they grow so that they can modulate the growing conditions to improve plant and soil health and crop nutrient density.”
The BioNutrient Institute is firmly focused on improving the quality of our food supply. Their mission is to create a home for the science to define nutrient density and what causes it. The organization recognizes that soil, plant, animal, human, and environmental health are intimately connected and are involved in several different activities to find ways to improve the nutrient density of the food we eat. In a recent interview with the founder and executive director of the BioNutrient Institute, Dan Kittredge says that ” for the past five years, we have been doing some good research identifying nutrient variations in food and connecting those variations to fertility programs and overall soil health.”
Besides working directly beside farmers, the BioNutrient Institute is also advancing in developing a prototype of a hand health spectrometer that Kittredge defines as a device that consumers can use to flash light at a given food product to determine the specific variations in nutrient content. To date, the prototype spectrometer has been tested on 21 different crops. The device flashes a light onto a food product and essentially takes a picture of the light bouncing back. The meter can then check for the specific levels of micronutrients in products such as carrots, wheat, spinach, etc.
One of the motivations for this tool is to help give consumers the empirical data they need to determine what types of food are healthiest for their chosen dietary and nutritional path. Unfortunately, many of the certifications for healthy food products pay little to no attention to nutrient density (as in the USDA organic certification mentioned above), and this direct, real-time empirical data certainly can give consumers more autonomy over their food purchases.
Furthermore, Kittredge mentions that many of the leading certifications are binary. A product is either GMO or non-GMO, for example. Though this can play a meaningful role in helping consumers navigate the increasing confusion of available food options, there must be more nuance. Regarding nutrition, Kittredge believes that a tool that gives people real-time data on nutrient content can allow for more specific and nuanced purchasing decisions.
Kittredge also believes that this type of device will give consumers the power to discern food quality before purchase, which will incentivize the suppliers of food to source the best quality available. Not only does this incentivize food companies and brands to be honest (sorely needed in an industry unfortunately affected by too many greenwashing practices), but it also might spur increased production via regenerative, soil-enhancing agricultural methods.
The BioNutrient Institute has been in the process of building a framework for several years. They understand that making a statement that one type of carrot or T-bone steak is better than another requires enormous data collection. Though they still don’t have a definition for better food, they have discovered significant variations in nutrient density according to production and agricultural practices.
Kittredge believes wholeheartedly that it is only a matter of time before our technology and data-driven society implement these types of sensors directly in our phones. “The question is, what are these sensors and apps going to be calibrated to,” he asks. “If they are calibrated to trustworthy standards that are open and available on the commons, then this could be a wonderful tool to implement across the supply chains. Farmers could use these types of sensors to differentiate their products from mass-produced and nutrient-poor “organics” grown in industrial farm settings. Health food brands could use these sensors to ensure that they find honest and reliable providers and suppliers. And, of course, consumers could use these devices to decide on their food purchases.
For health food brands who might be interested in helping to advance the issue of nutrient density across the supply chains, the BioNutrient Institute might be able to help connect you with certain groups investigating nutrient density parameters in certain food groups. In our future, data-driven society, creating reliable and transparent supply chains for raw food products that are nutrient-dense and grown in a way that enhances soil health might be a foundational strategy to stay relevant with consumers.