Fruits and Vegetables Are Losing Their Nutrients

Choose organic fruits and vegetables for safer and more nutritious food options.

February 20, 2009

Shrinking benefits: Today's mass-produced produce packs a lesser nutritional punch.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—That supermarket tomato not only tastes like Styrofoam, it could be a nutritional dud, too. A new review of studies focusing on nutrition in vegetables and fruit found that over the past few decades, some varieties have lost from 5% to a whopping 40% of their nutrient content. The analysis was published in the journal HortScience.


THE DETAILS: Researcher Donald R. Davis, PhD, nutrition researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, says the evidence from the last 50 to 100 years suggests that the way producers breed plants and use chemicals to produce higher yields could be diluting the nutritional quality of many vegetables and some fruits.

WHAT IT MEANS: First of all, don’t let this news deter you from eating fruits and veggies. We absolutely need them to be healthy, even if some of them don’t pack the nutritional punch they used to. (In fact, with today’s produce declining in nutrient value, it’s even more important to add more to your menu.) “Fruits and vegetables strongly tend to be our most nutrient-dense foods,” Davis says. “It would be much better if Americans ate more fruits and vegetables of any kind—any broccoli or tomato would be a big step up for most consumers,” he adds. But while you’re adding produce to your shopping cart, make decisions that will get you the healthiest bang for your buck.

Use these tips to seek the most nutrient-packed produce:

• Size matters. In the fruit and vegetable world, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Often, smaller pieces are more nutrient dense and have better flavor, Davis says. “Sometimes they are cheaper, too, because of the common bias for big,” he adds.

• Old is good. If you grow your own food or shop at specialty stores or farms, look for older, lower-yielding varieties, such as heirloom types. Odds are they haven’t been through the extensive breeding that’s diluted the nutrients of today’s high-yield lines.

• Organic is best. Science overwhelmingly suggests that organic produce holds more nutrients—in the more than 100 studies looking at organic and chemically grown food on similar soils in the same region, two-thirds show the organic produce packs a healthier stash of nutrients, according to The Organic Center. Organic edibles not only have more vitamins and minerals, they’re richer in other natural health-boosters. “There is emerging evidence that organically grown produce tends to be significantly higher in beneficial phytochemicals,” Davis says. Phytochemicals are a family of plant compounds that could be beneficial in reducing the risk of cancer and other diseases. And food grown organically is better for the environment: Harmful chemicals aren’t used, and organic methods trap carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.