The Illusion of Nutrient-Dense Food

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This post is part of a series of educational articles on gardening, self-sufficiency and food independence. That’s what The Liberty Garden is all about. To find out more about the mission behind The Liberty Garden concept, go here. Or read all the archives.


“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates

In my wayward vegetarian days, before finding Weston A. Price and eventually Paleo, I ate my fair share of faux food:  soy ground beef crumbles, egg substitutes made from tofu, heart-healthy margarine, and my favorite, seitan (pure wheat gluten).  For those of you that don’t know what I am talking about, check out this 30 second “public service announcement” from Ron Swanson of NBC’s Parks and Recreation.

(Hat tip to Primal Kitchen)

Nutrient Dense Food - NotMost of us recognize the foods listed above as imitations, but what about locally purchased vegetables, eggs, and grass-fed meats?  Clearly these whole foods are leaps and bounds ahead of the imposters, but do they contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals as nature intended?  The answer, to a great extent, depends on the care and stewardship of the soil in which they were grown.

“Food is fabricated soil fertility.  It is food that must win the war and write the peace.  Consequently the questions as to who will win the war and how indelibly the peace will be written will be answered by the reserves of soil fertility and the efficiency with which they can be mobilized for both the present and post-conflict eras.” – Dr. William A. Albrecht (From Weston A. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration)

Houston, We Have a Problem

Given how many conventional farmers manage their land, it really should not be a surprise that the nutritional quality of our food is on the decline, and has been for the better part of a century.  From a 1936 report to the US Senate“The alarming fact is that foods – fruits and vegetables and grains – now being raised on millions of acres of land that no longer contains enough needed minerals, are starving us – no matter how much of them we eat.”

Unfortunately, in spite of many years of warnings, we have not made much progress.  “Highlights” from a 2004 study evaluating USDA food composition data of 43 garden crops between 1950 and 1999 show that as a group the vegetables contained:

  • 16% less calcium
  • 9% less phosphorus
  • 15% less iron
  • Protein down 6%,
  • Vitamin B2 down 38%
  • Vitamin C down 15%

A 2009 study looking at declining nutritional values came to the following conclusion:  “Recent studies of historical nutrient content data for fruits and vegetables spanning 50 to 70 years show apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in minerals, vitamins, and protein in groups of foods, especially in vegetables.”

And finally, we have this from Dr. David Thomas, a UK based health researcher:  “Why is it that you have to eat four carrots to get the same amount of magnesium as you would have in 1940?”

The USDA, our food watchdog, doesn’t quite seem to appreciate the problem.  According to Phyllis Johnson (head of the Beltsville USDA office), “the 78% decrease in calcium content of corn is not significant because no one eats corn for calcium.”  I suppose Phyllis would have us pop a multi-vitamin – that should do the trick.

Unfortunately the problem also exists with our meats and animal products.  According to an article in Mother Earth News, the USDA reports a 20% decrease in iron and a 59% decrease in vitamin A from 1975 in factory-farmed eggs.  Do you think it MIGHT be because of the quality of what the chickens are eating?  See Eat wild for more information about the quality of milk and meat.

Modern Day Agriculture (or Alchemy)

Phantom corn

The biggest problem with conventional agriculture can be traced to the 19th century German chemist Justus von Liebig (a most appropriate name).  Liebig’s discoveries, namely the creation of chemical fertilizers (synthetic nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium or NPK), enabled farmers to dramatically increase the yield of their crops.  That sounds great, but it has led to many unforeseen consequences.

Plants don’t rely on just these three elements to produce nutritious food.  “Most crops utilize an average of 40 elements from the soil.  In no case do fertilizers add more than 12 and most commercial fertilizers add a maximum of six elements.” (Sea Energy Agriculture)

In addition, the NPK mentality has led to the following problems (see this article for more information):

  • Increased yields tend to dilute available nutrients.
  • Reliance on annual crops (primarily corn, wheat, and soybeans) exposes the soil to erosion and nutrient leaching from rainfall.
  • Long transportation distances, a by-product of crop subsidies and cheap oil, degrade the nutritional content of “fresh” food.
  • In a race to the bottom, modern, conventional farms are more akin to mining operations that year-by-year remove (and never replace) trace minerals.
  • Applying excessive amounts of certain nutrients to the soil makes other nutrients less available.

Liebig realized the problem he had created, but the genie was out of the bottle.  “I had sinned against the wisdom of our creator, and received just punishment for it.  I wanted to improve his handiwork, and in my blindness, I believed that in his wonderful chain of laws … there might be a link missing that had to be replaced by me….”

Obeying the Law of Return

Luckily some people questioned the wisdom of using artificial fertilizer and their promise of ever increasing crop yields.  Sir Albert Howard in An Agricultural Testament advocated for what he called “the Law of Return,” the idea being that farmers should utilize the waste products of agriculture (crop residues and manure) to create compost and increase stored soil fertility.

And prior to Howard, F. H King published Farmers of Forty Centuries. This book details the efforts of peasant farmers to save every conceivable scrap of organic material and return it to their fields.  In my opinion waste is simply a by-product that can’t be reused effectively – and manure should NEVER be a waste product.

You are probably saying that this sounds like organic agriculture; however organic agriculture is often missing a CRITICAL component.  Animals!

“Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste.” (The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture)

Joel Salatin, a modern-day farming hero, is a great example of how this model should work.  Unfortunately many small, organic farms do not incorporate animals into their operations and fail to adequately rebuild and replenish the soil.  With most farms that incorporate livestock, the farmer is supplementing the animals with significant amounts of off-farm food (hay in the winter for cows or grains for chickens and pigs).  This supplemental food turns into imported soil fertility to balance what is being lost to harvest.

Real Food as Rx’d

So, now that you have yet another thing to worry about with respect to nutrition, let’s see if we can’t simplify things a bit.

1)    Reduce or eliminate your consumption of cereal grains (including indirect consumption from grain-fed animals).  These annual crops are our worst offenders in degrading our soils with their heavy reliance on artificial fertilizers.  If you have already embraced a Paleo diet, you are ahead of the game.

2)    Raise some of your own food (as has been advocated for in The Liberty Garden).  In doing so not only will you feel empowered, but you will be producing some incredibly nutritious food.

3)    Train your senses to know what good nutrition looks, smells, and tastes like.  As I am 100% sure that my cows know what plants are nutritious, I am confident that we humans can relearn this skill as well.

4)    Purchase from local farms and hold them accountable. (See Holy Cows And Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide To Farm Friendly Food for more information).

  • Ask how they manage soil fertility.  Farmers should apply generous amounts of compost (ideally incorporating animal manures).
  • Look for or ask to see their compost pile(s).
  • Are “pastured animals” on green vegetation or just dirt?
  • Are animals rotated through areas that will grow annual crops?
  • Do you see evidence of earthworms (look for holes and mounds with fresh castings)?
  • Have a conversation about food and see what matters to the farmer (you might be surprised).
  • Are they growing heirloom varieties which may yield less but produce a more nutrient-dense product?
  • Ultimately, do you believe in the integrity of the people growing your food!

5)    Learn what you can from farmers of the past.  The following authors have contributed mightily to our collective agricultural wisdom, and much of their work can be downloaded free of charge from the Soil and Health Library:  William A. Albrecht, Lady Eve Balfour, Edward Faulkner, Sir Albert Howard, J.I. Rodale, Newman Turner, and Andre Voisin.

And finally, remember the wisdom of Dr. Alexis Carrel (Nobel Prize winner).  It is as true today as it was 99 years ago.

“Minerals in the soil control the metabolism of plants, animals and man. All of life will be either healthy or unhealthy according to the fertility of the soil.”

Thanks for reading.

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  1. Alexander York
    May 6, 2011 at 8:47 am

    This is fantastic. While a lot of us may already know these things we are slowly building a case against traditional farming methods. Once we can say, “look … you really aren’t getting more for less, you can’t cheat the system.”

    I’ve seen a lot of small-time, “organic” (by certification or by practice), farms struggle because they feel that they can only meet demand/stay afloat by mixing traditional farming methods into what could have been a self-sustaining system.

    I really want to start a farm just so I can show others that they only need to rely on themselves.

    • Tim Huntley
      May 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks Alexander. In my experience most farmers need to be better at marketing and explaining the value of what they are producing, especially if they are making the extra effort to grow organically.

      • Alexander York
        May 9, 2011 at 6:56 am

        You’re right. I think the biggest problem is that it’s easier to measure value in numbers of things and volume rather than quality (This takes effort for the farmer and consumer) – My second job is researching my food (by choice) and not everyone cares or wants to do that.

        Many many many people are much happier with a label such as “organic” rather than knowing how their food is really produced.

        Do we need a new “label” to sell those who are less concerned? Perhaps an open-source label that is official but will grow and evolve based on *our* contributions rather than industry drive and for-profit feel-good?

    • Nick
      October 26, 2013 at 11:15 pm

      Good luck with that!

  2. Squatchy
    May 6, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Great post. It’s a shame what our food system has become. Instead of making and eating the best food we can, many have turned to saving and making the most money they can, no matter the cost.

    All that fertilizer that’s being used ends up somewhere as well. We end up with stuff like this.
    http://discovermagazine.com/2004/dec/dead-zone
    http://discovermagazine.com/2000/mar/breakdead
    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/march16/gulf-030905.html

    • Tim Huntley
      May 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks Squatchy! Much of this problem is a by-product of cheap oil and subsidies for commodity agriculture.

  3. Diane @ Balanced Bites
    May 6, 2011 at 11:04 am

    As Pasteur said on his deathbed… “the terrain is everything.” Amen! Great post!

  4. Cromulent
    May 6, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Its amazing how much modern malaise can be blamed on 19th century Germans. I’m looking at you, Bismarck.

  5. Cam MacLellan
    May 6, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    One more reason to get my garden planted! Last year raccoons ate most of my crop..

  6. Brenden
    May 6, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    This post makes me very curious as to the legal ramifications of having farm animals on my yard.
    I may have to do some digging(Pun intended)

    Great Post!

  7. Ginna
    May 6, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Steve Solomon’s “Gardening When It Counts” contains an excellent overview of soil nutrition, including how to make the highest quality compost.
    http://www.amazon.com/Gardening-When-Counts-Growing-Mother/dp/086571553X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304716485&sr=1-1

    I’ve used his earlier books geared to the Pacific Northwest for years. Worth it for his organic fertilizer recipe alone.

    • Tim Huntley
      May 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm

      I am also a big fan of his books (especially “Gardening Without Irrigation”).

    • Allan Balliett
      June 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm

      I used Steve’s Complete Organic Fertilizer for years. I was impressed with it initially and then realized it wasn’t producing the sort of food I wanted to provide my shareholders with. Now I work with the Albrecht method and forumlate my own fertilizers from rock dusts (etc) based on a real soil test (not one from a state university!). In most soils, you will find that Steve’s fertilizer is way tOo simple to provide the needs of previously abused soils (and most of our soils in the US have been abused for hundreds of years!) You need that professional soil test to get things right. (Logan Labs do a good Albrecht-style test) For example, most soils need a lot of BORON, which you can’t apply ‘rule of thumb’ since too much is toxic. Same goes for copper and zinc, things Steve only superficially addresses.

      Love that Soil Health library, though!

      -Allan Balliett, Fresh and Local CSA http://www.freshandlocalcsa.com
      Foods that Nourish and Heal for the Washington, DC market

  8. Robb Russell, D.C.
    May 6, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Vegetables are Stupid.

    Long ago, during my sophomore year at San Diego State University, I was taking a class in Clinical Nutrition. It was what I called Twinkie Nutrition because the professor’s opinion was that just about anything that contained some combination of fats, carbohydrates and protein and wasn’t associated with fad diets (Atkins! Sprouts! Brown rice!) was good. In hind sight, she was right sometimes. One day we had a visiting professor of physiology as a guest lecturer. He made an off-hand remark about taking supplements. Dozens of students, Nutrition Department majors all, raised their hands in protest. “Supplements have no place in a healthy diet. They are unnecessary,” was the general refrain.

    The visiting professor listened to the objections and then declared, “Vegetables are stupid.” Blank stares and mumbles greeted his proclamation.

    He then explained the pervasive destruction of soil quality. He added that the introduction of chemical fertilizers resulted in lush looking growth but nutritionally deficient plants. The fact that vegetables and fruits will grow in these deficient soils because they aren’t smart enough not to do so. They were too stupid to know otherwise.

    Then he added one more point. Within a few days of being harvested, the antioxidant and vitamin content of many popular foods (he cited strawberries as an example) plunged compared to the day of picking.

    So he asked the protesting students if they were positive the foods they were eating were from nutritionally intact soils. He asked if they were certain they were eating foods at their peak of nutritional quality. What, he asked, were the nutritional effects of trucking (or flying) food from far away, warehousing, shipping to markets and then sitting in a home refrigerator for two day.

    None of these Nutrition Department students had an answer. This was news to them. This explanation has not made me so much of an advocate for supplements (I do use some) but rather an advocate of organic, sustainable farming and local food whenever possible.

    Twinkie Nutrition is still alive.

    • Robb Wolf
      May 7, 2011 at 8:48 am

      Love it!

    • Squatchy
      May 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm

      Vegetables are stupid, haha, excellent! He makes a good point that not many think about. Going to have to remember this one.

    • Alexander York
      May 9, 2011 at 6:58 am

      Simply amazing.

    • Allan Balliett
      June 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm

      I have a couple of my crops tested for nutrition each year to see how much improved over the USDA standards they are. A test costs $40, which may not be much to you professional folks, but it’s downright debilitating to a Real Food family farmer.

      I’m wondering if anyone reading this can suggest less expensive ways of getting the actual nutrient value of local foods documented.

      Here’s something everyone should know: it appears that only heirloom vegetables reliably accrue higher nutrients even when grown on Albrecht amended soils!

      I can’t confirm this because our tested vegetables are so few, but it definitely appears to be the case: hybrids just don’t pick up a lot more nutrition, even when they can get it but heirlooms do! (Virtually all produce in commercial markets is from hybrid plants. I think Amber has already run an article on the value of heirlooms)

      Allan Balliett
      Fresh and Local CSA
      Serving Washington, DC
      http://www.freshandlocalcsa.com

      PS By the way, foods rich in trace minerals just taste much better!!

  9. Laurie
    May 7, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Excellent post! I cheat a bit by getting animal waste from my next door neighbor, but nothing goes to waste around here. Coffee grounds keep the flea beetles at bay, eggshells stop the slugs. Leaves help store the carrots in the root cellar, then get dug into the ground with the potatoes at planting time. We need to rethink the way we grow our food.

  10. Wang
    May 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Some writer with an Anthroplogy background wrote an article that talks about the differnce between agriculture/farming and horticulture/gardening. Interesting read. This website talks A LOT about the lives of Paleo humans compared to Neolithic humans.

    http://rewild.info/anthropik/2007/06/agriculture-or-permaculture-why-words-matter/index.html

  11. gary martins
    May 9, 2011 at 7:04 am

    Skim Milk. Avoid it
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIZ4ckmd9-I&feature=related

  12. Joshua
    May 9, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Ron Swanston is my hero! I was watching this episode on hulu the other day and dying from laughter.

    Tim- Thanks for the post. I have been trying to learn what look for when buying locally grown food. I know a lot of what I see is smoke and mirrors when it comes to labels on food.

    • Tim Huntley
      May 10, 2011 at 7:41 am

      You bet Joshua. Don’t be afraid to ask the farmers you buy from about their growing practices. It is something they should take pride in if they are doing things right, and if they are evasive, well, just move along.

  13. CE Steinfeld
    May 16, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    The only thing that all people of all diets (from vegan to paleo to gluten free to etc.) is that vegetables and greens are good for you!

    The only way to go, it seems, is to either grow your own fruits and veggies or shop at local farmer’s markets or joining a local Community Supported Agricultural group. Although it’s not perfect, voting with our dollars would ultimately be the best solution to improving the health of our soil, crops and of course, ourselves.

    In health,
    CE Steinfeld, MPH
    Healthbent Entrepreneur Blog

  14. Ian
    May 18, 2011 at 6:29 am

    I really enjoyed this post. One thing I was hoping to see mentioned is how human waste fits into the picture. If cows eat grass and poop them out the back, then were to die on that same strip of land to feed other animals and rot back into the soil, the cycle would be complete.

    If we transport away, even from our own backyard gardens, food and the nutrients from the soil it was grown on, is all of that elemental nutrient base sitting in our graveyards and human waste facilities?

    Any thoughts on this?

    • Robb Wolf
      May 18, 2011 at 7:42 am

      “Night Soil” should be part of the equation, but the sanitation issues get dodgy unless you are on your own stretch of land.

      • Allan Balliett
        June 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm

        I’ve got a great article on the use of urine (which, in actuality, doesn’t have sanitation issues (but I don’t think you want your clients to hear that you use it) as a fertilizer for tomatoes. Well, you don’t need to read the article, just use your own urine to fertilize your tomatoes weekly and you’ll noticeably improve their sweetness and protein content, according to this paper (which I will share with anyone who is interested.)

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