In markets for food, flavor and nutrition have taken a backseat to productivity and price, more often than not. As a result, we eat much less nutritious food today than our grandparents did 80 years ago.1 In addition, we more fully understand how significant erosion of food quality is inextricably linked with afflictions in soil, plants, animals, humans, the environment, and the climate.
A nonprofit dedicated to improving nutritional quality in the food supply, the Bionutrient Food Association (BFA) is initiating the Real Food Campaign to directly measure food quality and promote best farming practices. We believe this new paradigm has the potential to not only improve the health of humans, but to also nourish microbial ecosystems, enabling the soil to sequester carbon to its fullest capacity and helping to solve the existential crisis of our time.
These are a few of the challenges we face in our food systems today:
An estimated 3 billion people from both developed and developing nations have specific nutrient deficiencies, impacting us in ways we understand and in ways we do not.2 In the developing world, the results of poor nutrition are deadly: low birth weight, high rates of infection, and diarrhea, among others.3 In the U.S. and other developed countries, the effects of poor nutrition are just as real but much less obvious: Even subclinical4 nutrient deficiency results in higher rates of infection, increased risks of all types of cancer, and an increased risk of obesity.5 This is a slow but real drain on our health, our economy, and our happiness.
Organics: only a partial solution
Addressing malnutrition in the developing world is notoriously complex, but solutions in developed economies are simpler, including better information and labeling at the point of sale, such as with organics. The organic movement has successfully reduced chemical residues on produce and resulted in more environmentally sustainable farming practices. However, studies are not conclusive about the health benefits of organic produce over conventional food, even though 89 percent of organic food consumers cite health reasons as a motivator for eating organic.6,7
Variations in nutrient levels
At the same time, studies consistently show large and very significant variations in nutrients due to other factors (see up to 10x variation in Vitamin A from samples collected across the U.S.,8 variation in lycopene, antioxidants, phenolics, and ascorbic acid from 53 varieties of tomato9). In other words, a tomato is not a tomato is not a tomato – even if it's organic.
Nutrient density unknown
Nutrient density is the level of nutrients per unit calorie, reflected in flavor and aroma, not volume and visual aesthetics. Determining the variation in nutritional density of all crops is largely unknown because it is an expensive process and there have been no obvious economic drivers to incentivize this work.
Relying solely on regulating farms to improve food quality, as organic certification does, will continue to fail. Consumers need measurements in the store to make the best purchasing decisions at the point-of-sale and to drive demand. And both conventional and organic growers need real-time measurements in the field to make production decisions that drive nutrient density.
Dearth of nutrient-density research
Today most research is overly simplified, focusing on the effects of single nutrients on specific illnesses.10 Although the results are often significant, the public impact of each study is limited. Some studies indicate that fruits and vegetables with high levels of a broad range of nutrients produce better health outcomes. But many studies fail to account for potential differences in nutrient density, treating all fruits or vegetables as homogenous.11
Larger holistic studies with more broad and compelling outcomes are needed. Without compelling outcomes that can be communicated to the public, price and yield will continue to dominate breeding decisions and farmer practices.
Lack of clarity about best practices.
Finally, if and when markets can identify and demand nutrient-dense foods, there are no clear recommendations to farmers on ways to improve nutrient density in crops. It will take years to establish these recommendations and will require constant effort to keep them up to date.
As with the early organic movement, addressing these challenges requires sustained development, research, and communication.
2 Gram RD and Bouis HE. “Addressing micronutrient malnutrition through enhancing the nutritional quality of staple foods: Principles, perspectives and knowledge gaps. http://www.css.cornell.edu/FoodSystems/AdvAgron4.html
3 FAO: "Human nutrition in the developing world." http://www.fao.org/docrep/w0073e/w0073e03.htm#P522_61269
4 Not low enough to be diagnosed as a deficiency. Examples provided are effects for vitamins, trace minerals, and antioxidants, see reference
5 Shenkin A. Postgrad Med J. 2006;82(971):559–567. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2585731/
6 Idda L et al. “The Motivational Profile of Organic Food Consumers: a Survey of Specialized Stores Customers in Italy.” 12 Congress of the European Association of Agricultural Economists—EAAE 2008. http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/43946/2/152.pdf, FONA International: "Organic: A look at who is purchasing organics, why, where…and more!" https://www.fona.com/resource-center/blog/organic-look-who-purchasing-organics-why-whereand-more
7 Smith-Spangler C et al. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348–366. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875, European Parliament: "Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture." http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/581922/EPRS_STU(2016)581922_EN.pdf
8 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1986.tb10851.x/full, Table 1
9 Hanson PM et al. J. Amer. Soc. Hort.Sci. 2004.129(5):704–711. http://journal.ashspublications.org/content/129/5/704.full.pdf+html, Table 1
10 AHRQ Publication No. 09-E015: “Vitamin D and Calcium: A Systematic Review of Health Outcomes.” August 2009. https://www.ahrq.gov/downloads/pub/evidence/pdf/vitadcal/vitadcal.pdf
11 Slavin JL and Lloyd B. Adv Nutr. 2012;3:506–516. http://advances.nutrition.org/content/3/4/506.full