As early as 1936, Rex Beach prepared a report for Congress detailing the depletion of minerals in our soil. Experts warned the lack of minerals in our soil resulted in lower mineral content in our food. Despite many technological advances and changes in farming techniques, it appears we are no better off today. Perhaps we are worse off. With so many reports of increased disease, obesity and a general lack of health we have to at least ask the question: is our food as healthy today as it was 50 years ago? There is substantial evidence to suggest it is not. The good news is we have the ability to produce wonderful tasting and healthful food right at home.
The answer to the question seems obvious, but it is really? We seem to call anything we put in our mouths food, but what then is junk food? Many health professionals would argue that junk food is not food at all. Food is fuel for our bodies. Food is energy. When we consume empty calories, we take fuel away from our body rather than replenish it.
We are used to talking about calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein. Everyone knows we need to eat more vegetables and fruit. We know we need to limit our fat intake and reduce our consumption of simple carbohydrates. We hear the term “balanced diet” and often equate healthful eating with substances that taste marginally better than sawdust. We try to compensate for low energy with caffeine and supplements. Perhaps we’ve gotten off track. Hippocrates solution was simple yet practical, “Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food.”
If we’ve made so many technical advances in food production over the last 50 years, why are so many people sick? As our demand for quick and inexpensive food increased, farmers put more emphasis on large yields. Not until 2007 did Brian Halweil in his report, “Still No Free Lunch: Nutrient levels in U.S. food supply eroded by pursuit of high yields”, examine the nutritional value of high-yield food[i]. According to the report, farmers have doubled and even tripled the yields in the last 50 years. Unfortunately, nutrition hasn’t kept up with the yield.
Halweil’s report states the more a tomato weighs, the lower its concentration of lycopene, a natural anti-cancer causing agent. (Note: Halweil’s report referred to tomatoes produced by conventional farming methods. It is the method, not the size, responsible for the decrease.) Double-digit declines of iron, zinc and calcium were noted in sweet corn, potatoes and whole-wheat bread. Tim Lang, professor at the Center for Food Policy in London states, “We think of an orange as a constant, but it really isn’t. In fact you would have to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of vitamin A your grandmother got from a single orange. You would need to eat five oranges to get the same level of iron.” Tim Lang was the originator of the concept “food miles” which examines how long food travels before reaching our plate.
The body absorbs nutrients through the process of digestion. Carbohydrates provide quick energy while protein adds to energy stores. A careful balance of minerals in the body is needed for full digestion. Minute shortages in just one mineral can disrupt this delicate balance. If the soil is lacking minerals, this deficiency translates to the food. Midwest soil is notoriously low in iodine which plays a critical role in thyroid function. This soil deficiency resulted in a high instance of goiters and resulted in the term the “goiter belt”.
The body cannot manufacture minerals and must consume them through food. Minerals are the catalyst to many biological reactions in the body and are critical to proper utilization of vitamins from our food. Zinc for example, is used by 300 different enzymes for various bodily functions. Calcium, one of the most important minerals for bone and tooth health, is also required for proper nerve function. Doctor Harold Sherman of Columbia University believes that a full 50% of American’s lack proper calcium. This one deficiency alone can account for numerous diseases and morbid conditions.[ii]
It’s simply not enough to eat fresh fruits and vegetables for maximum health. It is the nutrient dense fruits and vegetables with all the magic. They are grown only in mineral rich, healthy soil. A high ratio of total nutrients to total calories determines whether the food provides the body with necessary minerals and vitamins. A low ratio means the food provides calories, but does not provide the body with nourishment. People eating low density diets may experience excess hunger and consume far more calories in an attempt to satisfy the body’s needs. Fruits and vegetables are traditionally associated with nutrient density, while refined and processed foods tend to be low density. We are now learning that analysis is too simplistic and that produce quality is related to soil health.
Satisfying and filling foods are typically rich in nutrition. Empty calories are good for quick energy bursts quickly followed by a crash. Empty calories also don’t fill you up for long. Even though fruit and vegetables aren’t thought of as empty calories, they won’t nourish you if they lack minerals. Livestock owners witness this effect when feeding their herds. Animals consume significantly less high-quality feed than lower quality feed.[iii]
There is a fairly simple method for evaluating food quality: taste. High quality or nutrition dense food tastes the best. Fruit or vegetables grown in nutrient rich soil, and harvested at the peak of ripeness, are sweet and flavorful. Compare a store-bought tomato in December to one picked from your grandmother’s garden. There is no comparison. The tomato in the store was picked green and shipped hundreds, or more likely, thousands of miles and ripened artificially. The tomato never reached the point of maturity where it developed the vitamins and minerals, if there were any in the soil to absorb in the first place. Instead, the early tomato is watery and tasteless. But taste is not all that is lacking.
Qualitative measures reinforce the taste test. Wine makers in the 19th century turned to Professor A. F. W. Brix to help them determine which grapes would make the highest quality wine. Professor Brix developed a method to measure the percent of solids in a given weight of plant juice. This measurement, now known as Brix, varies directly with quality. Brix is often thought of as the measurement of sugars, but all solids are accounted for including amino acids, oils, proteins, flavonoids and minerals.[iv]
A simple device called a refractometer will measure the Brix value. A simple digital refractometer consists of a prism. Liquid from the plant is placed on the prism, which measures the light refraction. The Brix value is associated with either Poor, Average, Good or Excellent quality. Produce is most commonly measured for quality, but plants producing high quality crops will also have a high Brix content. Measuring leaves of growing crops could be an early indicator of crop health. Most people don’t own a refractometer, but there is another test that can be done to determine quality. High Brix food does not rot in storage. The water will evaporate causing dehydration but spoilage will not occur.
High quality crops aren’t just healthier and good to eat; they have another thing going for them: resistance to pests. Pests are nature’s way of decomposing unhealthy plants. Healthy plants will not only resist bugs, they will repel them, eliminating the need for the use of pesticides. There are several theories as to why bugs will not eat high quality crops. One theory is nutrient dense produce contains high levels of sugar which in turn ferment producing alcohol. Insects are unable to process the alcohol since they do not have a liver so they consequently die from the reaction. Rather than eat something that will cause their ultimate demise, they choose to eat the nearby crops that are less nutrient dense.
Organic produce is widely regarded as being more healthful than traditionally grown produce. Organic farming, however, is only part of the equation. Organic production does not guarantee more nutrients. It is still possible to farm organically without building the health of the soil. It is also possible to grow crops organically and pick them long before maturity to ship half-way around the globe. Rex Harrill, author of Using a Refractometer to test the quality of fruits and vegetables contends 90-95 percent of the produce from ordinary commercial channels lacks nutrients. Harrill believes growing to achieve the maximum Brix result is more important than focusing strictly on organics. Eating local is the most likely way to ensure quality. Once a fruit or vegetable is harvested, regardless of ripeness, it is impossible for the Brix content to increase.
There has never been a better time to pick up a shovel, buy some seeds, and start growing. Despite our good intentions for creating better health, we are just plain busy. We’ve been sold the promise of health in a pill and food in a box. We’ve been conditioned that food that is good for us tastes bad. Growing your own high quality food will change your mind forever. You’ll continue to grow it for your health, for fun, and for the taste. Growing a high-quality yield requires adding more to the soil than the traditional fertilizers containing only N-P-K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium). If your soil is depleted, it will take a while to build it back to health. You will want to add organic matter and microbes. Microbes will build humus and create balance. Jeff Lowenfeld’s book “Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web”, in an excellent resource.
In the absence of perfect soil, there are still things you can do to grow healthy food. While you build healthy soil, it’s always possible to build raised beds and fill them with good quality top soil and compost. Container gardening can also provide good results. Starting plants early in a greenhouse can improve quality significantly. Seedling and young plants must compete with weeds for food, water, and lights. Transplanting well established plants from a greenhouse gives plants an edge and you an early start. Higher yields and better taste are the reward.
Healthy soil is alive. Industrial farming methods don’t just kill bad bugs and weeds. “Roundup ready” fields are not cultivated; nothing but genetically modified crops survive the onslaught. Neglected soil lacks healthy bacteria, fungus, and microbes necessary for healthy soil and food production. You can replenish your soil if you arm yourself with information and some patience; it won’t happen overnight.
Here are a few things you can do right away for healthier soil:
A recent study revealed up to 75% of processed food in the United States contained Genetically Modified Ingredients (GM). Jeffery Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, noted in his article titled “Genetically Engineered Foods Pose Health Risk for Children” that many animals refused to eat GM foods. A study conducted in the early 1990’s intended to feed GM tomatoes to rats. The rats refused to eat them and were force fed. Despite the fact nearly 20% of the rats died within two weeks, the FDA approved the GM tomatoes in 1994 amid protests from the scientific community. (Note: GM tomatoes were pulled from shelves and are not in supermarkets today.) In similar studies on GM corn, twice as many chickens died eating GM corn as died in the control group. Cows, pigs, elk, deer, raccoons, squirrels, rats, and mice have been observed avoiding GM soy when given an option.
Some may argue we are practically force fed unhealthy food. They may have a point, but ultimately, we have the ability to take control of our health by taking control of our nutrition. Luckily for us, doing so means enjoying food more.
Last night I brought home three tomatoes from our company garden and tested the Brix of all three with my refractometer. The first tomato tested on the low end of “Average”; it was harvested early and partially ripened off the vine. The second tomato tested on the low end of “Good”; it was just under ripe. The third tomato tested “Excellent”; it was ready to nearly burst off the vine. I asked my husband and father-in-law to taste each of the three tomatoes and decide which tasted the best. We all picked the tomato that rated “Excellent”, although I was the only one who knew the result. Next we cut open an expensive organic tomato purchased from the store. Immediately we noticed significant amounts of water coming out of the tomato. The Brix test was “Poor”. We didn’t eat that tomato; we really didn’t want to. We were already satisfied.
Michelle Moore is the General Manager of the Greenhouse Catalog where she has worked with greenhouses for 20 years.