It is not a coincidence that metabolic and chronic diseases have increased over time. There is an obvious imbalance in human nutrition. It is not only caused by excessive or deficient consumption of particular foods but the content of foods has changed over time. This means that we are not eating the same foods that our great-grandparents ate. Here in this article, we will cover how the nutrient content of fruits, vegetables, and grains has changed over time, how this affected our health, and what to do now.
Certain foods and crops have experienced reductions in crucial nutrients compared to mid-20th century levels.
While practices to increase crop yields have succeeded in providing essential calories to fight hunger and food insecurity, they have also led to decreases in essential nutrient content.
As micronutrient deficiencies are linked to common chronic diseases, reintroducing essential micronutrients through biofortification and food enrichment is crucial for human health.
Modern agricultural practices like diverse fertilization, crop rotations, and soil inoculants are being explored to improve crop yields, soil fertility, and nutrient content of foods.
There is no food that can meet all of your nutritional needs by itself. Therefore, we need to diversify our nutrition with several foods to consume all the macro and micronutrients that we need to maintain physiological functions. We are expecting some special nutrients from each food, such as essential amino acids from eggs, iron from meat, magnesium from nuts, or vitamin C from citrus fruits. But are they still able to cover our needs?
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Report, crucial nutrients in certain foods and crops have shown reductions of up to 38% compared to their levels during the mid-20th century. Across the analysis of 43 different vegetables, there was an average decrease of 16% in calcium content, 15% in iron content, and 9% in phosphorus content. Additionally, significant decreases were observed in the vitamins riboflavin and ascorbic acid, while protein levels exhibited slight declines.
How did the “Green Revolution” decline essential nutrients?
It is important to meet the daily caloric needs of humanity, as a great number of people still experience the life-threatening challenges of hunger. Norman Borlaug earned a Nobel Prize for his work on the “Green Revolution,” which aimed to increase crop yields and address food shortages with the development and adoption of high-yielding crop varieties. These varieties produced more grains per unit of land, leading to increased caloric availability in many regions. This was especially important in addressing hunger and food scarcity in developing countries.
Was the "Green Revolution": necessary?
Before judging the effects of the “Green Revolution” on the nutrient content of foods, we need to accept its importance. Even in 2022, approximately 29.6% of the world's population, equivalent to 2.4 billion individuals, experienced moderate or severe food insecurity, and approximately 9.2% of the world's population faced hunger. So "modern problems require modern solutions,” and humanity can find better solutions.
Modern solutions for “hidden hunger”
Hidden hunger, also known as micronutrient deficiency, refers to a form of undernutrition where individuals consume enough calories to avoid being underweight, but their diet lacks essential vitamins and minerals needed for proper growth, development, and overall health.
There is an obvious connection between most common chronic diseases and micronutrient deficiencies. Therefore, we need to put those essential micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, back into foods. Biofortification, or food enrichment, is one way to handle this undernutrition worldwide, but it is not enough. Maybe we need the second green revolution!
How do we restore our nutrients?
Scientists are researching how to increase the nutrient content of foods during the production stage rather than the biofortification of the end product, which makes sense because it is a more sustainable way to enrich our nutrition.
To nourish humanity, first, we need to nourish soil and crops. Soil fertility, crop nutrition, and the effects of different agricultural practices on crop yields and soil health are recently debated topics. The use of different fertilizers such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and organic amendments and crop rotations are some strategies to improve our soil and crops.
The studies that began at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania in 2016 have achieved significant success in this regard. The main goal of the study is to establish a connection between farming practices, soil health, crop nutrient density, and human health.
Researchers have noticed that the more active fungi and microorganisms there are in the soil, the more equipped it is to deliver nutrients to plants and into our diets. There exists a network of fungal threads called mycorrhiza, which acts like an extension of plant roots and forms a symbiotic relationship with plants and microbes. Complex biochemical pathways, supported by fungi, involve a continuous transfer of nutrients from the soil to the plant.
The impact of mycorrhiza is so substantial that it has begun to be used to enhance commercial crop productivity, similar to how vaccines are used to improve immunity and health in humans. Soil inoculants have been developed, particularly based on strong mycorrhizal fungal strains.
As we navigate the delicate balance between sustaining global health and food supplies and nourishing our bodies, we need to address hidden hunger and explore innovative solutions.
- Journal of the American Collage of Nutrition. Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999.
- Rodale Institute. Inaugural Planting of Vegetable Systems Trial.
- Heliyon. Enhancing sustainable agri-food systems using multi-nutrient fertilizers in Kenyan smallholder farming systems.