|Written by Henry Brockman|
|Saturday, 12 January 2008|
Temporarily out of print
The Truth About Taste and Nutrition Revealed!
An Excerpt from”Organic Matters”
By Henry Brockman
Every once in a while, a customer comes up to me at my market stand and says, with a bewildered look, "I bought some organic carrots at the store the other day and they didn’t taste anywhere as good as yours."
"Of course," says I. "Glad to hear it," says I, for this is old news.
Ever since I was a child, I have heard people sing the praises of the produce grown by my family on The Land, our few acres nestled between Sugar Creek and Walnut Creek in central Illinois. I cannot count the epiphanies that have occurred around our dinner table over the years as a friend or guest suddenly realizes that they had never liked beets (or broccoli, or beans), not because beets don’t taste good, but because they had never eaten good beets before.
"But they were organic carrots," my customer persists. "Why do yours taste better?"
"Ah, my vegetables taste better because they’re more nutritious."
I’ve said this for years and now I have a food scientist to back me up. ("For," as Virginia Woolf’s shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith, reassures himself "one must be scientific, above all scientific.") Robert Shewfeld, Professor of Food Science at the University of Georgia, says, "In general, when you pick something at peak flavor it is about the same as picking it at peak nutritional value."1 In other words, flavor is an accurate measure of comparative nutritional value. We do not require a laboratory, fancy tests or expensive equipment to find out which vegetables are better for us. All it takes is the taste buds we were born with.
The link between flavor and nutritional value is a harsh indictment of most vegetables in the produce aisle. Their watery insipidity is a crime against the culinary arts and an assault against the taste buds. When grown and marketed properly, vegetables are storehouses packed to the roof with vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals, but the vapid vegetables on store shelves have been stripped of their treasures. How much Vitamin C is in a tasteless tomato, how much beta-carotene in a banal carrot, how much calcium in dreary kale? Listen to your taste buds. “Not much,” they say. And it doesn’t make any difference if those tomatoes, carrots and kale were grown organically or with chemical fertilizers and pesticides; if they are equally tasteless, they are equally nutrient-poor.
While the vegetables grown by small-scale, local farmers like me remain nutrition powerhouses, the sad fact, backed now by countless studies, is that most organic produce in our stores is no more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. In 1997, Joan Dye Gussow, Professor Emeritus of Nutrition and Education at Columbia Teachers College and a friend to organic agriculture, wrote an article entitled "Is Organic Food More Nutritious?" Seventy years of studies comparing store-bought certified organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, she said ruefully, have produced no hard proof that certified organic food is more nutritious.2
Another proponent of the organic movement, Virginia Worthington, compiled the results of 30 different studies comparing 300 vegetables.3 Certified organic produce in these studies had a higher nutritional content 40% of the time and conventionally grown crops were more nutritious 15% of the time. While Worthington interpreted this as a victory for organic produce, the results still mean that 45% of the time there is no nutritional benefit to buying organic produce and 15% of the time organic is actually the worse choice. The fact is that decades of these comparative tests have provided the supporters of modern, industrial chemical agriculture with ammunition for shooting down claims of the supremacy of the organic philosophy.
"See, it’s just a load of touchy-feely gobbledy-gook with no basis in science," they gloat. (For one must be scientific, above all scientific.) And we on the organic side lick our wounds and lament: "How can this be?" If organic farming is about life and about healthy plants, healthy soils, a healthy environment and a healthy planet, it must also be about healthy consumers of the organically grown food, right? Organic food is by definition more healthy and nutritious than conventionally grown food, right?
To understand the paradox of nutrient-poor organic produce, we must delve into the tangle of factors that determine comparative nutrient levels in produce. These factors fall into three basic categories: 1) Factors related to how the produce is grown, 2) Genetic factors and 3) Factors related to the relationship between grower and consumers.
Let’s start with what happens on the farm, in the vegetable field. Plants extract the nutrients they require for growth and development from the soil. Thus, vegetables that are chock full of nutrients must be grown in soil that is chock full of nutrients. This is an obvious, but little appreciated, truism. Even scientists tend to forget it sometimes, as evidenced by Dr. Ingo Potrykus’s grand philanthropic plan of erasing iron deficiency among Third World children by creating a genetically modified rice that is high in iron.4 The problem of iron-deficency in the Third World, however, is not that the countries have no iron-rich crops, but that their soils has been depleted of iron by over-farming. Unless the wizards at Du-Nov-Santo have isolated a gene for synthesizing iron out of thin air, even Potrykus’ rice will not be high in iron if grown on these iron-poor soils.
But the problem of depleted soils is not only a Third World problem. As far back as 1938, soil scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned of the rapid depletion of soil nutrients in this country due to unsustainable farming practices.5 Thus, even turnip greens—rated as the best vegetable source of iron—grown on a soil from which the iron has been mined out over years and years of intensive row-crop agriculture with no fallow time for rejuvenation, will not have high iron levels no matter whether they were grown organically or conventionally.
Another way that mainstream agriculture—and remember that most organic produce in the major supermarkets is mainstream—manages to grow nutrient-poor produce is the way it fertilizes the crops. The fertility practices of large-scale organic agribusinessmen are not all that different from those of large-scale conventional agribusinessmen. Granted, large-scale certified organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers—and that is definitely a good thing. Like chemical farmers, however, large-scale organic growers concentrate mainly on providing their crops with the Big Three essential plant nutrients, since as long as there is a plentiful supply of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium plants grow big and they grow fast.
I believe that plants grown in most large-scale organic and conventional farming operations are fed a diet that is too rich, particularly in nitrogen, and consequently grow too big too fast, causing their nutritional value to plummet. Robert Shewfelt cites the work of many scientists to back this up.6 Eppendorfer found that when plants are given too much nitrogen, protein quality actually declines and Nagy and Wardowski found the same trend in ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) level. A study by J. N. Sorenson revealed that while higher nitrogen fertilization produced larger cabbage heads, those heads contained proportionally more water and proportionally less ascorbic acid and dietary fiber than cabbage grown with less nitrogen fertilizer.
The high nitrogen regimes used on most farms radically pumps up the size and rate of growth of vegetables. I am convinced that plants that grow naturally and at their own pace—working to extract the nutrients they need from a rich and healthy soil rather than being force-fed an overly rich diet of nitrogen—are healthier and thus more nutritious. When I see the pumped-up vegetables in the grocery store, the image of a body-builder on steroids springs to mind. Who is healthier, someone whose muscles came from hard work and training or someone whose muscles came from ingesting synthetic drugs?
In addition to heavy inputs of readily-available nitrogen, vegetables grown by the big growers also get heavy inputs of water. The produce you see in supermarkets—whether organic or conventional—was almost invariably grown with irrigation. Crops grown with plenty of water grow fast and large, but as Sorenson found, more water can mean less nutrients and fiber.
Studies have also shown that crops that are harvested and handled mechanically suffer greater post-harvest nutrient losses than hand-harvested produce due to the bumps and bruises they sustain.7 Here is another reason to buy your vegetables from the small-scale farmer, who picks and packages each bunch of beets, each tomato, and each head of lettuce with that most delicate instrument, that miracle of evolution, the human hand.
The farming and harvesting practices that favor more nutritious produce are all related to the idea that highly nutritious food comes from a healthy soil that is part of a healthy farm that is part of a healthy environment. This circle of health is generated by farming practices that are based on the goal of protecting and enhancing all life. Unfortunately, a grower may strictly adhere to a list of agricultural practices mandated by an organic certification agency (and therefore, earn the certified organic label) without setting this circle of health a-spinning.
The question of what “organic” means and what constitutes “organically grown” has just been decided by the federal government. The USDA is now instituting regulations to ensure that their definitions of "organic" and "organically grown" are met by all domestic and foreign producers. The problem with the USDA standard is that it becomes a minimum standard—a ceiling that very few growers will break through. If your local store carries organic produce you can already see where this leads—to produce as tasteless, and as nutritionally poor, as conventionally grown produce. Of course, certified organic produce grown at any scale does mean that fewer harmful chemicals were applied to the soils and crops, and that is definitely a good thing. But "organic" means much more than simply "no chemical pesticide; no synthetic fertilizers."
So, what does "organic" mean to me? The definition that I have settled on goes straight back to the biological roots of the word. In biology, organic means "of, relating to, or deriving from living organisms." What I do in my fields is deal with life and living things in all their complexity, all their inscrutability, all their sublimity, all their unpredictability.
These are things that industrial agriculture continually seeks to eliminate, control, or beat into submission. Complexity, unpredictability, inscrutability—these are more than irritating to the conventional farmer. They get in the way of maximum productivity and they make him feel insecure. Conventional agriculture is all about domination and control. Organic agriculture as I practice it is about cooperation and acceptance.
My fields are full of life, brimming with life, overflowing with life. You see not only crops, but weeds. On the plants are insects, some of them considered beneficial, some of them considered pests. The soil is stirring with worms, sowbugs, mites, ants, and other life. Beyond the resolution powers of the naked eye, the soil roils with a whole universe of microbial life. A teaspoon of soil contains dozens of nematodes, thousands of protozoa, yards of fungal material and 100 million to 1 billion bacteria. The biomass of soil bacteria alone is equivalent to two cows per acre. That means that each acre of healthy soil hosts over 2000 pounds of bacteria!
My way of farming not only enhances the lives of the crops and those who eat them, but enhances all life, from the lives of the insects, worms, and arthropods of the vegetable field to the lives of the wildlife and domesticated life (that includes us) who inhabit the environment around the field. And on a grander scale, organic farming enhances the very life of the planet by protecting a piece of it and by not polluting the planet’s water and air.
The basic tenet of this kind of organic farming is to protect and enhance the tiny lives of the microorganisms of the soil. The teeming bacteria, fungi and single-celled organisms are what give the soil its health and fertility. Without a healthy soil, there are no healthy plants. Without healthy plants, there are no healthy plant-eaters, be they insects or rabbits, cattle or humans. Without healthy herbivores, there are no healthy flesh-eaters either. Without healthy animals, there can be no healthy ecosystems and without healthy ecosystems, there can be no healthy planet.
I must ensure the health and fertility of my soil in order to ensure that those who eat the produce from that soil get healthy, nutritious fare. That responsibility, however, is only incidental to the farmer’s greater responsibility. The farmer—the steward of a patch of the Earth’s soil—must sustain the health of the soil to ensure the health and welfare of all life, today and tomorrow.
But enough soaring rhetoric, and on to category number two: Genetic factors. Simple genetic variation is perhaps the most widely overlooked preharvest factor behind variation in nutrient levels of vegetables and fruits. Different varieties (cultivars) of the same vegetable vary widely in the amount of nutrients they contain. When Eitenmiller et al looked at the nutrient composition of different cultivars of apples, peaches and other fruit, for example, they found variation in Vitamin A levels as high as 20 times.8 Robert Shewfeld reports that carotene levels in any given vegetable often vary by a factor of 10, depending on the cultivar.9
As more and more studies show the importance to health of the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in food crops, seed companies are beginning to develop varieties with elevated levels of vitamins and minerals. I now grow a variety of carrots called Sugarsnax, for example, which is said to contain much more beta-carotene than other varieties. You will not find Sugarsnax carrots in either the conventional or certified organic aisle in your grocery store, however, because the variety is not as productive or as pretty as the mainstream commercial varieties.
A presentation at the annual conference of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association (ISGA) several winters ago showed me just why a variety like Sugarsnax never makes it onto commercial growers’ seed order list. In rural Illinois, you can stop in at any small-town cafe and talk corn and soybeans until the cows come home, but for the state’s relatively few fruit and vegetable growers, the ISGA conference is about the only opportunity to talk shop. But even here, I don’t fit in, because most of the conference goers are large-scale, chemical farmers who raise one or two major crops for the wholesale or canning market. Most of the sessions reflect this demographic, with plenty of information about which chemicals can be used to kill which insects and weeds and how much of such-and-such fertilizer should be applied for such-and-such a production level. Having never farmed any way but organically, these sessions are my education into the ways of mainstream agriculture—and a horrifying education it is.
The ISGA session in question was a slide-slow presentation by a university extension specialist on tomato cultivation. On the topic of how to select which variety of tomatoes to grow, the gentleman told us we should consider three factors and he flashed this slide on the screen.
This slide—with its numberless fourth factor flying in the face of the presenter’s assertion that there were only three—gave me a slight psychic jolt, not unlike the jolt one feels when roller coaster cars bump together just as the ride begins. But the ride I was beginning was a slow slide into the ludicrous. This was confirmed a few minutes later, when the extension specialist, now on “3. Transportability,” began waxing poetic about the qualities of North Carolina State University’s famous Mountain series of tomatoes, which he announced with barely-concealed pride, are "hard as a rock" even when dead-red. I looked around the room in alarm, but apparently I was the only stranger in this Kafka-esque landscape, for the other growers were either nodding sagely or scribbling "Mountain" in the margin of their conference schedules.
The speaker moved on to "Taste ???"—the phantom non-factor in selecting a tomato variety. The wise man said, and I quote, "Taste may or may not be a factor in selecting a tomato cultivar." And among the assembled growers, nary an eyebrow was raised.
Looking back, I understand why. In the particular reality inhabited by large-scale growers for the wholesale market—and it doesn‘t matter if we are talking about the organic market or the conventional market—flavor truly does not matter. What matters is raising tomatoes that are highly productive, look great, and can be machine-harvested and shipped for thousands of miles. (As my sister likes to say, “Commercial tomatoes last forever; they rot not.”) That is the reality of the wholesale market.
Another example is the Red Delicious apple. "In trying to create the perfect apple for the major supermarket chains ... they may have sacrificed taste to cosmetics," Timothy Egan wrote in the New York Times.10 Egan quotes lifelong apple grower Doyle Fleming as saying "For almost 50 years, we’ve been cramming down the consumer’s throat a red apple with ever thicker skin, sometimes mushy ... but a product that was bred for color and size and not for taste."
But why weren’t the nation’s apple growers concerned about flavor for the past 50 years? How could they and all other large-scale produce growers expect people to keep on buying tasteless fruits and vegetables? The answers to these questions bring us to the last category of factors that govern the nutritional value of produce: the link between the grower and the consumer.
In the wholesale market, there are no faces. the farmer grows for faceless consumers and the consumer eats the food of a faceless farmer. There is no absolutely no accountability. If you buy a tomato at the store and it tastes terrible, do you say to yourself, "Well, I’m never going to buy a tomato from that farmer again?" No, as a matter of fact, you would find it nearly impossible to trace your way back down the chain to find out where that tomato came from and who grew it. Those tomato growers at the ISGA conference know this. That’s why talk of a tasteless tomato did not strike them as absurd.
But I do not want to paint wholesale growers as the bugaboo here. Like every other farmer in America, they are fighting to keep their heads above water for one more year, just one more year. Like Red Delicious growers, ever since the advent of big-time agribusiness, survival has meant growing produce that meets USDA standards for size, shape, color, and absence of blemishes and that will pass the visual inspection of produce buyers down at the terminal market. In this system, there is no link between taste (read, nutritition) and market success.
When a farmer sells face-to-face to the public, the situation is reversed. If a customer buys a tasteless tomato at my market stand, well, I hear about it. And then I can do something about it. As a matter of fact, I launch into the third degree: “What kind of tomato was it? When did you eat it? How did you prepare it? How did you store it?” A tasteless tomato is serious business and I need to figure out the "why and the wherefore." Perhaps it was a new variety that I’m testing that really doesn’t taste good. Perhaps the customer stored the tomato in the refrigerator and that was the problem. Perhaps they made a tomato sauce out of an heirloom variety that loses all its delicate flavors when cooked. Perhaps they just got a bad tomato—in which case I give them a good one. I don’t want to leave them with a bad taste in their mouths. Heaven forbid.
A farmer who sells directly to the public can also grow varieties like Sugarsnax that have been bred for higher nutritional content and greater flavor, because the farmer can inform the customers about why they should be buying that variety. When I select varieties, my top criterion is flavor. (Remember, once again, that "flavor" is code for "nutritional value.") Transportability is never a factor at all—I’m only 150 miles away from my furthest customers and I measure the time between when a vegetable is picked and when it is sold in hours rather than days or weeks. Even so, I am at the outer limit for transporting delicate items like heirloom tomatoes, which were bred by backyard gardeners with the goal of achieving heights of flavor that would make their neighbors positively queasy with envy. As long as a Brandywine or German Johnson could make it from the backyard garden to the kitchen table, that was transportability enough.
Productivity is still very important. My motto is "More is better, unless more means less"—less flavor, that is. I would stop growing Yellow Brandywine tomatoes, for instance, if I could find a tomato that tastes as good as it does. For every one Yellow Brandywine I harvest I probably get two or three Caspian Pinks or Pruden‘s Purples and probably five or more of a highly productive hybrid tomato like Big Beef or Better Boy. But sometimes you’d just rather have one Yellow Brandywine than five Better Boys.
Appearance is important too. Every once in awhile, I come upon a variety that is so beautiful that I grow it more for its aesthetic value than for its taste. I could find another heirloom tomato that tastes better than Striped German, for example, but what other variety can match the beauty of their luminous gold and red streaked interiors? There is nothing wrong with buying beauty, but often customers mistake fashion for beauty. Is a hairy, forked carrot less beautiful that a straight, smooth one? Or are sleekly uniform carrots merely a fashion statement?
The fashion in lettuce these days is for deep, glossy greens and brilliant, shining reds. But just like in the Red Delicious case, often what breeders gain in color, they lose in flavor. The old lettuce variety Oakleaf is a perfect example. It has everything going for it except that it has a lighter, yellowish-green color rather than the fashionable dark green that people expect nowadays. I always had a hard time selling it. So when a seed company came out with a new green oakleaf variety called Royal Oak several years ago I jumped on it. As I watched the seedlings come up and develop into beautifully-shaped, vigorous, dark-green heads, I was ready to agree with the seed supplier, who calls Royal Oak "the Rolls-Royce of oakleaf lettuces."11 Then I did a taste-test: Royal Oak versus Oakleaf. Oakleaf tasted better, slightly mellower and slightly less bitter. What a disappointment. But I brought Royal Oak to market anyway along with Oakleaf. At the end of the day, all the Royal Oak was gone while almost all the Oakleaf sat, wilting, on the table. I held on to Oakleaf for another year, but then gave up. Most people put so much dressing on their lettuce they probably can’t tell the difference anyway, I consoled myself.
I gave up on Oakleaf, but I still insist on growing a lot of other varieties that don’t sell well out of sheer stubbornness. If Oakleaf had had a flavor as striking and delicious as Cracoviensis or Forellenschluss, a pair of 200-year-old heirloom lettuces that, like Oakleaf, look strange and unappetizing to the modern eye, I would have persevered, trumpeting its qualities to any customer who would listen. That‘s what I do now for old Cracoviensis and Forellenschluss, and slowly but surely they are gaining a passionate following among lettuce connoisseurs.
What these examples point out is that only farmers with a face-to-face relationship with the people who buy and eat their produce have incentives to grow varieties that taste better and therefore have higher nutrient levels.
Another aspect of a direct farmer-consumer relationship is the distance between the field where the food is grown and the table where it is eaten. The average produce item in this nation’s stores has traveled 1,500 miles to get there.12 Consequently, crops such as tomatoes and melons and many of the tree fruits must be picked while still unripe so they can ripen up during their long trek to market. Unfortunately, nutrient levels in produce are highest at peak maturity.13 All those organic tomatoes and watermelons in the grocery store, which were picked unripe in order to survive their cross-country journey just like their conventional cousins, have much lower nutrient levels than fruit allowed to ripen on the vine. Small, local farmers selling directly to the public, on the other hand, can let their tomatoes and melons ripen up on the vines. The plants continue to pump the fruit full of vitamins and minerals, as well as cancer-fighting lycopenes, right up to the time when they are supposed to be picked—when they are at their peak of maturity, nutrition, and flavor.
Post-harvest treatment of the crop is also a factor in preserving high nutrient levels (and again, flavor). Sweet corn is probably the most striking example. All plants continue to respire after they are picked, burning up their sugars and giving off CO2, water and heat. Sweet corn picked at 80 degrees will continue to respire at a rapid pace, releasing 400 mg of CO2 /hour.14 This CO2 is being generated by the breakdown of sugars. The more respiration continues, the more that sweet corn becomes "unsweet" corn. The rate of respiration can be drastically reduced, however, merely by lowering temperatures. Cooling corn from 80 to 70 degrees cuts the respiration rate in half. That’s why I pick my corn in the cool of the evening and then immediately pack it in a crate with a jug of ice in the center and topped off with crushed ice. Twelve hours later, I’m selling it at the farmers’ market and my customers can’t get over how sweet and delicious it is. Often as I drive my truck back down the interstate after these same markets, sweating through oppressive August afternoons, I see open semis heading north heaped with sweet corn. Imagine how rapidly that corn is respiring. Its sugars, nutrients and phytochemicals are being baked out of it. By the time it reaches the sweet corn bin at some store in Chicago, that sweet corn not only has no taste, it has no nutritional value either.
But perhaps the greatest culprit behind lost nutritional value is simply that old nemesis, the passage of time. As soon as a vegetable is picked it begins losing nutritional value—and fast. Leeks, for example, lose over 50% of their total carotene within three days.15 A study by Mary Eheart and Dianne Odland showed that even under optimal storage temperatures green beans lose 60% of their Vitamin C in the first three days after harvest and lose another third by the end of the fourth day.16 By the end of the week, it won’t matter if you eat a whole bushel of beans—you’ll have to look elsewhere to get your USDA daily requirement of Vitamin C.
And it is not only nutritional elements that are lost. Many of the phytochemicals that provide a whole range of health benefits from fighting cancer to regulating cholesterol levels to stimulating the immune system also decrease rapidly over time. Jerusalem artichokes and burdock root contain a phytochemical called inulin that acts like insulin in the body and so is highly beneficial to diabetics. After 24 hours, however, most of the inulin rapidly converts to starch. 17
Think about how many nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals break down and disappear as produce—whether certified organic or conventional—wastes away in warehouses and trucks and more warehouses and more trucks before it even makes it to the store, where it sits on the shelves some more before you finally pick it up and put it in your bag. Contrast this to produce from a local farmer selling at a weekly farmer’s market or a farm stand or through a CSA. The maximum time between when I pick and pack the vegetables and when my market customers put it in their bags is 24 to 36 hours and in most cases it is closer to 12 to 18. My CSA customers 20 miles down the road get their produce within 6 to 12 hours of harvest. At the store, you’d be lucky if the produce was picked 6 to 12 days ago—and here’s a case where organic produce can actually be worse.
Often organic produce gets stuck in the distribution pipeline longer than conventional produce simply because sales volumes are lower. The produce manager at a southern Illinois health food store told me that their organic produce was shipped from points west to a wholesaler in Chicago, to Madison, then to Indianapolis, and finally to the store in downstate Illinois, which is in the witness protection program and therefore shall remain unnamed.
So, here it is—the answer to the paradox of organic produce that is no more nutritious than produce bombarded with all the agri-chemicals known to man. The samples that were used in the comparative studies of organic and conventional produce came straight out of the wholesale market pipeline. In other words, these studies tested the products of large-scale organic farms—which supply the bulk of organic produce on the store shelves—against the products of large-scale conventional farms. It should come as no surprise, then, that these studies rarely find any statistical difference between vitamin and mineral levels in the two types of produce. The samples of both types were grown under basic farming practices that are detrimental to nutrient levels, such as heavy use of water and nitrogen. All samples arrived in the researcher’s lab after a long journey through the same packing and transportation infrastructure, which bumped and banged these tender nutrient packages along yards of conveyer belts and along miles of roads. They all sat in trucks and warehouses days and weeks before reaching the laboratory. Finally, both the organic and conventional produce were cultivars bred for uniform size and shape, a pretty appearance and transportability — not flavor or nutritional content.
So, I won’t argue that the organic produce sitting in Whole Foods, Jewel, or Kroger is more nutritious than its conventional cousins. But I will argue fiercely that my small-scale, locally grown, locally sold organic produce raised on rich and healthy soil under natural conditions is. And that’s not just good for you (and your taste buds), it’s good for the planet.
|Last Updated ( Friday, 13 August 2010 )|