"We think of an orange as a constant, but in reality it's not."
July 6, 2002 9:25 AM   Subscribe

"We think of an orange as a constant, but in reality it's not." Canadian study finds that fruits and vegetables have lost much of their nutritional value in the last decades--potatoes, for example, have lost 100% of their Vitamin A. The reason, it appears, is mass production and a market that values appearance over substance. Is this symptomatic of deeper problems within a system where produce travels so far before reaching the consumer? Here in B.C., for example, the stores are full of California produce, despite the fact that we grow much the same fruits and vegetables locally.
posted by jokeefe (17 comments total)

 
My apologies, the link seems to have blown up. The story is on the front page of today's Globe and Mail, at http://www.globeandmail.ca/. It's about the third story down.
posted by jokeefe at 9:30 AM on July 6, 2002


The url was truncated for some reason.

Here's a better link. (With an extra bonus of removed advertisements.)
posted by whatnotever at 10:08 AM on July 6, 2002


This story has all the attributes of pure horse manure. The story is about an apparent decline in the measured nutritional value of common fruits and vegetables. The declines registered are so drastic, that the first thing a normal scientists would say is just what the first normal scientist quoted in the article DOES say (about a hundred grafs down): "Did they [the nutrient levels] really go down, or do we just have better techniques for analyzing those nutrients?" Instead of leading with this reasonable suggestion, however, the journalist jumps straight to the most outrageous speculation, which is that modern mass-farming methods, because they emphasize appearance, have bred the nutrients out of fruits and vegetables. Never is it explained why a good-looking vegetable can't be as nutritious as an ugly one. Also, the accusation conveniently involves a quality of food (vitamin content) that almost no one outside of a large instruction is capable of testing for him or herself, so we really have to take these unknown researchers at their word. In fact, this story has the shape of a fairy tale or an urban legend, especially with its "outside=beautiful/inside=barren" formulation.
posted by Faze at 10:29 AM on July 6, 2002


"Eat around the banana, Dad...it's just full of empty calories." Or something to that effect.
posted by davidmsc at 11:10 AM on July 6, 2002


Let's give the article credit for pointing out both possibilities for the discrepancy: either nutrient levels of food have declined or or ability to detect these nutrients have changed. Furthermore, the article quotes no fewer than 4 "experts" with varying points of view. I honestly don't know how the article could be less biased.

The idea that the nutrient levels themselves have changed is a familiar one to those of us who began looking into "organically grown" products for their families years ago. The argument has nothing to do with "pretty = less nutritious". Furthermore, if we as consumers cannot trust the "unknown researchers" who determine nutritional content, then we may as well stop reading those information panels on our foodstuffs altogether.*

About a quarter of the way into this article we find the following paragraph: "Modern farming methods, long-haul transportation and crop-breeding practices are all believed to be contributing to the drop in vitamins and minerals." This is a pretty good summary of the explanations that do not assert that the test itself is wrong. The slightly longer version is that modern farming uses fertilizers, breeding, pesticides, and other techniques to maximize yield and shelf-time, benefiting the farmers, distributors, and retailers. Because there are finite nutrients in soil, they must be distributed among more fruits/vegetables. Furthermore, the things that must be done to make pests not eat the final product are also believed make it less suitable for human consumption.

*Near the end of the article the "Unknown Researchers" turn out to be none other than the Canadian Government. Trustworthy or not, I fail to see that they have a reason to lie.
posted by ilsa at 11:16 AM on July 6, 2002


Ilsa, Your "slightly longer version" makes sense. Because there are finite nutrients in soil, they must be distributed among more fruits/vegetables. I accept that. Too bad no one in the article made the point as succinctly as you were able to.
posted by Faze at 12:24 PM on July 6, 2002


Um...I've been hearing about this for ages, although not in regards to Canada specifically.
It's also particularly irritating that much produce has basically had the flavor bred out of it as a side-effect of forcing it to grow year-round when it's not supposed to. For many kinds of produce, there's a also sort of cut-off point where greater size just starts diluting the flavor. Those giant shiny strawberries, like the ones Driscoll's produce taste like cardboard. When I worked in a restaurant, we actually ordered two brands, and used the Driscoll's strictly for decorative purposes. And even better: they're big less because of actual mass than the enormous hollow space in the middle of them. In fact, the fraise de bois breed, which are considered some of the best strawberries in the world, are comparatively miniscule.
Has anybody else noticed that most fruit in supermakets doesn't smell anymore?
posted by Su at 12:25 PM on July 6, 2002


Thank you, Faze. If you want to read a fairly common sense book about health and "organic" foods, try Please, Doctor, Do Something! by Dr. J.D. Nichols and Mr. James Presley. Don't let the title put you off.

And yes, Su, I had noticed that big strawberries don't taste nearly as good as the little ones. I won't speculate about why. You can still find some fragrant fruit markets if you look around.
posted by ilsa at 2:15 PM on July 6, 2002


I think ilsa's on the ball here. The balance between 'growth cycle' and 'shelf life' has altered considerably, which is more important than 'appearance' here. Also, though this may be cod-chemistry: as well as vitamins, aren't the esters that create tastes and smells really complex carbon-based molecules, compared to basic carbohydrates? But also, aren't these molecules more volatile than starches and sugars, so there's always going to be a few trade-offs in both growing/raising foodstuffs and bringing them to market with long shelf lives?
posted by riviera at 5:26 PM on July 6, 2002


Fruit is also poorer-tasting when it has to be shipped long distance and last for days on the shelf: it simply has to be picked unripe, in order for it to survive.

I've eaten peaches right off the tree, and I swear on my life that they are a wholly different and absolutely divine delight, to which the from-the-store variety are but the palest poor imitation thereof.

Ditto for asparagus, cherries, tomatoes, etcetera. I love living in the middle of prime orchard and farmland!
posted by five fresh fish at 6:10 PM on July 6, 2002


(er, speaking of which, I'd love to have a real, off-the-tree orange some day. I understand they're picked green as a lawn, shipped, and then turned orange by chemical means.

Tell me, someone in Florida, whether off-the-tree oranges are better than off-the-shelf...)
posted by five fresh fish at 6:12 PM on July 6, 2002


Has anybody else noticed that most fruit in supermarkets doesn't smell anymore?

it's what the queers are doing to the soil! (hehe)

hey, you know what? take a multivitamin. really, everyone should. if taste is what you're interested in then yes, that may be something to be concerned with. but our body's needs for nutrients aren't so complicated as to make them incomprehensible to people. who cares if potatoes have 0% vitamin A, you should not only eat potatoes. any multivitamin has 100% and you're fine.
posted by rhyax at 6:31 PM on July 6, 2002


much produce has basically had the flavor bred out of it

Lord, that's the truth. Compared to the cardboard fruit I was used to growing up in BC, the fruit and veggies here in Korea are like angels dancing on your tongue.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:08 PM on July 6, 2002


Taking a multi-vitamin is not a bad idea, but relying on it would be. Where do you draw the line and say "This part of my diet cannot be replaced by a pill"? Would anyone expect to stay healthy on a diet of indigestible fibre and a whole load of supplements?

We don't know everything about nutrition, but we do know there are things that, eaten singly, are bad for us, yet eaten in combination are good. That alone is good enough to convince me to keep trying to eat whole food, organic food, unrefined food, fresh food, etc, wherever I can get it and afford it. It's the best chance of eating everything my body needs.

Nutrition is starting to be taken more seriously by science, and hopefully we can look forward to more solid research and better public education lessening the influence of certain food lobby groups.

I remember reading something about changed food makeup over a longer period of time, on Beyond Vegetarianism. Don't be fooled by the name, they're not pro vegan zealots - there's plenty of meat in the paleo diet for example - they are trying to make available some of the knowledge gained by people practicing or observing what most of us, myself included, would regard as extreme diets, without making a judgement call themselves.

And, damn, broccoli is one of my favourite vegetables.
posted by southisup at 7:52 PM on July 6, 2002


Tell me, someone in Florida, whether off-the-tree oranges are better than off-the-shelf...)

Well, not Florida but ... friends of my parents own a small orange grove in Southern California. Dark orange oranges picked right off the tree are intensely juicy and sweet.

I grew up with these oranges - small, mottled, but insecticide free. I cant bear to eat the off-the-shelf supermarket oranges especially when I see them arranged in their even-sized little pyramids. I guess I'm spoiled but they taste like soured water to me. When I go visit my parents, I always gorge on the real stuff.

Funny thing is they have this grove as a hobby, not for-profit. Nevertheless they have allowed local retailers to come and pick their grove. Even so, the retailers, of course, pick the best-looking oranges, the ones they know the clients will buy and leave the best tasting ones to rot.

The one exception is a guy who sold orange juice - he knew which ones to pick. heh.
posted by vacapinta at 8:18 PM on July 6, 2002


You know, Rhyax, I like you. You're not like the others...

Multivitamins taste bad, too *grin*
posted by Su at 11:58 PM on July 6, 2002


inttteresting. coupled with the information about vitamin pills being less effective than previously thought, i'm pro-organic produce more than ever.
posted by kv at 7:28 AM on July 7, 2002


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