Where have all the phytonutrients gone?

Aronia Berries

Aronia berries. Photo by majorbonnet via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran an interesting essay by JO Robinson. It examines the loss of nutritional compounds in farmed produce over the years thanks to ongoing selective breeding by humans:

Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers….

Each fruit and vegetable in our stores has a unique history of nutrient loss, I’ve discovered, but there are two common themes. Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.

Robinson goes on to carefully examine the case study of corn. It’s a fascinating article and well worth a read; check out the full piece and accompanying infographic here.

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