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Nutrients in the past and today

Richard Staudner
Richard Staudner

The Optimizer

"There's nothing left in vegetables these days," or "Our fruit used to have a lot more nutrients," are statements you hear over and over again.

The consensus seems to be that our food is not providing nutrients in either the quality or quantity needed. Even major media such as the German weekly magazine "Der Spiegel" lament the decline.

But how much is there to these statements? Is it just the classic Everything-was-better-before-mentality, or are we actually starving in front of full pots?

Even if many things were indeed better in the past, we should look at the issue more objectively and consider other parameters than just the micronutrients of a carrot measured in the laboratory. Because with the improper processing in our kitchen alone, we can actually wipe out all the nutrients in the vegetables.

How did these assessments actually come about?

This opinion was formed when the first studies were published in the early 2000s, which recorded the decline of several nutrients in fruits and vegetables. The declared problem was that our agricultural products in the 70s and 80s of the last century had significantly better nutrient values than after the turn of the millennium. This came out in the researchers' analyses. Immediately the already quoted headlines in various books and magazines followed. It took a little longer until the research again dealt with it in detail, in order to check the picture obtained at that time once again.

In 2017, researchers analyzed the data and found that it is actually hardly possible to draw conclusions from the figures from two different centuries, which were measured using absolutely different methods. It's like comparing apples and oranges.

Based on this historical data, we cannot clearly say at the moment whether and how the content is changing. The Swiss as well as the German Society for Nutrition have also conducted studies and found that the nutrients are not declining rapidly and that the micronutrient supply is ensured with the recommended fruit and vegetable intake (5 a day). Of course, it doesn't completely matter what produce you consume! But more on that later.

Leaving the church in the village?

The content of nutrients in plants naturally already varies greatly and in some cases exceeds the changes measured in the studies many times over. Soil quality is not the only decisive factor when it comes to the buildup of nutrients in fruits and vegetables. For example, the fruits on the sunny side of an apple tree build up significantly more vitamins than those on the side that lies in the shade for longer periods of the day.

Where is the problem then?

What has changed, however, is the way we produce and handle food, this actually has an impact on quality. In conventional agriculture, yield and efficiency are key to profitability. Each plant must bear more fruit. The tomatoes must grow bigger and the potatoes heavier. The plants grow faster, store more water, incorporate more carbohydrates, but at the same time not more nutrients.

Our desire for ever cheaper food thus leads directly to nutrient leaching via the severely limited choice of varieties and the methods of modern agriculture. The choice of varieties at some organic farmers is 10-20x as high as in the supermarket around the corner. There are countless varieties of carrots, in all colors of the rainbow. Eating a varied diet is certainly a key to avoiding nutrient deficiencies. On the internet, you can find countless farm stores and organic farmers even in your area. You'll be amazed at what's available. Many agricultural products, such as the Bio-Kisterl, are conveniently delivered to your home.

What else can I do personally?

Our consumption of vegetables is generally too low. We definitely have some catching up to do. It looks better with fruit. Understandable! Fruits are also very popular as a snack or dessert.

We should perhaps also consider the topic of fresh and gentle preparation in this discussion. This is probably where most of the nutrients are lost. One thing vitamins don't like is long storage times and too much heat in the pan. If you take care of your vegetables here, you can get away with small amounts. The regularity makes the difference.

I myself manage to get through everyday life with small, easy-to-implement tricks. For example, I eat a green salad with every main meal or a cabbage variety in winter. That provides vitamins and also satiates.

What influence does the environment have?

It's not just soils that have changed, researchers say. They have found in experiments that CO2 in the air drives growth but reduces protein formation in plants. They did this by growing plants in different air environments and then analyzing the nutrient composition. The CO2-salary corresponded to current and future values in order to estimate the change.

In the environment with high CO2-content, plants have less protein, iron and zinc built in. Accordingly, researchers estimate that plant sources of protein will lose between 6.4% in potato and 14.1% in barley by 2050. That's as early as 30 years from now. This decline is also expected for other grains, such as wheat, spelt and rice. For us, this means up to -3.43% of protein intake or -8% for vegans. The CO2 is therefore not only responsible for climate change, but also hinders our nutrient supply, right here in Austria.

However, one thing should generally be taken into account in this consideration: at least in Austria, cereals are not among the most important protein suppliers. In Asia and Africa, however, there are very well countries where this can make a difference in the supply. In some countries, rice accounts for 80% of the daily calories consumed. So "starving in front of full pots" is no longer an empty phrase and is made even more palpable by this environmental change.

Should I be worried?

You should arrange your diet so that small fluctuations do not immediately cause a deficiency.

Plant-based nutrition with seasonal, regional and organic vegetables should be the foundation of your care. And this should be done on a daily basis. Of course, fruit should not be missing either. In Austria we are richly supplied with apples, pears, plums, and much more. Nature has already thought of something with the seasons. What fruit provides us with vitamins in the summer, you get in the winter from cabbage and cabbage varieties.

With animal protein I have a mnemonic for you: "What swims, flies or runs" brings me quality on the plate. This includes, of course, fish, poultry and game. You guessed right, I'm not a big fan of pork.

The time and again in the Criticism I do not want to demonize standing grains here. Instead, I recommend that you reach for ancient grains. Einkorn, Kohrasan or Emmer are among the oldest and healthiest varieties. If you prefer gluten-free, I recommend buckwheat. Whether it's flakes, pasta or bread, buckwheat offers a tasty and healthy alternative to conventional grains. You can get it at almost any organic store. Compared to the classic wheat bun, there's no question of empty calories with these varieties.

Spice the whole thing up with nuts and the basic supply of nutrients is guaranteed. I myself stick to 80% these foods, then there is still enough room for sweets, a Beer with friends or whatever else makes you happy.

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Richard Staudner

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