“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”
– Ann Wigmore, Lithuanian–American holistic health practitioner, naturopath, and raw food advocate
By Carter Trent
According to the World Bank, the disconnect between nutrition and agriculture lies in the fact that the latter is a key "driver of economic growth in countries." From “Nutrition and Agriculture: Bridging the Gap:
"We need to work together across sectors to create a global food system that is sensitive to nutritional outcomes."
Today’s nutrition dilemma wasn’t always the case. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the goal of U.S. food systems was to advance the health of citizens through improvements in the quality of diets. Thirteen years after the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was founded in 1862, it created the Chief of Human Nutrition Investigations post, responsible for studying food’s nutritional composition to better understand how diet affects human health.
Over time, however, human nutrition shifted away from a component of agriculture to become the domain of doctors and scientists. In addition, as the human population grew and urbanization expanded, the agricultural industry prioritized low cost and high convenience over nutrition. This led to a number of food safety failures that, today, continue to plague the supply chain, costing an estimated $2 billion annually.
For example, in 1989, trucking companies were caught routinely picking up food after carrying garbage and hazardous chemicals, which led Congress to pass the Sanitary Food Transportation Act of 1990 to stop such actions. But trucking companies continue to execute practices that can jeopardize food safety.
One common practice is to commingle food with other products if there isn’t enough fruits and vegetables to fill a truck’s container. This minimizes the number of trips the truck takes, even if it contaminates the food. A study by Danish authorities in 2021 found that a quarter of transportation companies failed to maintain the proper hygiene and temperature conditions for safe food transport.
Traveling Fruits and Veggies: Nutrient Depletion
Thanks to a global supply system, you can enjoy your favorite fruits and vegetables nearly year-round without worrying about what’s in season. Produce can be grown anywhere in the world where conditions are favorable, and the harvest shipped to your local grocery store. Unfortunately there is a trade off.
The global supply chain contributes to the loss of nutritional content in your produce. After fruits and vegetables are picked from the plant or tree serving as their source of sustenance, they begin to lose moisture and nutrients, using these to keep cells functioning. Consequently, the longer it takes for produce to journey from the place of harvest to where it’s consumed, the greater the nutrient loss. And with today’s modern supply chain, food travels vast distances to arrive on our plates.
Fruits and veggies grown in the United States and Canada travel up to five days before arriving at a grocery store. Food imported from international locations can take anywhere from days to weeks, depending on whether it was transported via air or ship. Food traveling is measured in “food miles,” which represents the number of miles traveled between where food is harvested, and the place it’s eaten.
Produce typically travels an average of about 1,500 food miles according to research conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Of course, food miles are also an indicator of how much your food contributes to environmental pollution. The farther food travels, the more fossil fuels are used, adding to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
This pollution harms human health, causing damage to the respiratory, cardiovascular, immune, digestive, reproductive, and central nervous systems. In addition, food miles don’t account for the carbon emissions from the use of machines in food production and preparation, refrigeration, packaging, and more. As a result, about 10% of fossil fuels are burned by the U.S. food industry, equating to France’s annual energy consumption.
Rush to Ripen, Refrigeration, and Contamination
Getting produce to the point of sale before it spoils rather than circumventing the nutrient decline, and pollution associated with food miles, seems to be a priority from the industry standpoint. To blunt spoilage during transport, many farmers harvest fruits and veggies while they’re still ripening, rather than at peak maturity, when they are the most nutrient-rich. This practice also leads to less flavorful food.
In addition, some produce won’t ripen after being picked, including raspberries, blueberries, grapefruit, lemons, bell peppers, eggplant, and more. To induce the ripening process, these fruits and vegetables are sprayed with ethylene gas, a hormone that activates physiological changes in produce.
Refrigeration is also used to reduce food spoilage. However, the use of temperature controls still creates nutrition loss due to inappropriate or interrupted refrigeration at any point along the supply chain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the many steps involved in the food supply system, combined with each fruit and vegetable’s different temperature and handling requirements, creates opportunities for food contamination.
Refrigerated food left on a loading dock can reach temperatures that allow bacteria to grow, or produce can be contaminated when loaded on a truck that wasn’t properly cleaned after transporting animals. This has become more complicated in the era of online grocery ordering and delivery. In the United States, between 30% to 40% of all food is wasted annually according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and vegetables represent almost 20% of that total.
Other factors contribute to nutrient reduction as well. One study examined the stages in the agricultural supply chain, and the impact each step had on the food’s nutritional content. It found the biggest loss of nutrients happened while produce sat on grocery store shelves. For example, a head of lettuce will lose half its manganese, a third of its zinc, and nearly 60% of its iron within three days of being displayed on a store shelf.
This means you must eat more fruits and veggies to get the necessary level of vitamins and minerals your body requires to support the immune system and prevent chronic diseases. But that’s challenging, since according to the CDC, over 80% of Americans fail to meet the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables.
Preserving nutrients: Given these factors, do preservation techniques, such as canning, reduce the nutrient loss found in fresh produce? A study of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables by the University of California (UC), Davis found nutrient loss depended on the food involved, and the preservation method used.
For instance, canned fruits and veggies are subjected to high temperatures during the industrial canning process, causing greater nutrient loss than freezing. Up to 90% of a vegetable’s vitamin C content drops due to canning. Also, canned food can contain added sugar or salt.
Even frozen fruits and vegetables suffer some nutrient loss when the food is blanched prior to freezing. Blanching is a common step in the industrial freezing and canning process because it deactivates enzymes in produce that cause a loss of color, flavor, and texture.
After these preparation steps, the UC Davis study found:
"Frozen fruit and vegetable products showed little change in nutrient content if the storage temperature was well maintained."
Import export: An obvious contributor to nutrient loss is the fact that current commercial food systems are focused on financial gain rather than nutrition. In California, which produces an estimated 70% of the fruits and vegetables in the U.S., the challenge of food miles and nutrient degradation would seem a minor problem. But a substantial amount of the state’s locally-grown fruits and veggies are exported.
For example, Santa Barbara county is in the top 1% of all U.S. counties in terms of the value of its agricultural production. Yet over 99% of its produce is exported while more than 95% of the produce consumed in the county is imported. This happens because the food systems are set up for bulk import and export to keep prices low. Santa Barbara’s produce is shipped from farms to warehouses, where the food is centralized and prepared for distribution to locations across the nation.
Ways to Hike up Your Nutrition Game
Fortunately, the path to safer, more nutritious fruits and vegetables is in your control. For example, you can take several steps to eat produce with fewer food miles. One approach is to buy locally-grown fruits and veggies whenever possible, which travel an average of just 56 food miles. This requires a focus on buying seasonal fruits and vegetables, including learning what’s in season in your area.
A great way to do this is to shop at a local farmers’ market. This not only allows you to buy in-season fruits and veggies, you also get to interact directly with farm representatives, who can answer questions about the produce they grow, such as whether they use sustainable and spray-free, organic farming techniques.
If a farmers’ market is not nearby, try Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This is a subscription-based model that allows you to buy directly from farmers. When you sign up to receive your seasonal produce, in addition to size and number of deliveries per month, you can often choose what you’d like in your box depending on what the farm grows. This supports your local farmers, and provides you with fresh produce.
Another option is to join or start a food cooperative (co-op). These are community grocery stores owned by the people who shop there. Being community-based means a food co-op works with local farmers and businesses to provide the produce and other goods it sells. A good resource to find local farms, farmers’ markets, and CSAs is LocalHarvest, which provides an online directory and search capabilities for many cities across the U.S.
At the grocery store, examine where fruits and vegetables were grown. Many U.S. grocery stores sell imported fruits and vegetables, even if the particular fruit or vegetable is grown locally. Consider providing feedback to your store, asking them to source locally-grown food.
If you’re willing and inspired, try your hand at growing your own produce. Start small with just a couple of edible plants if you have little to no experience, such as easy-to-grow parsley or bell peppers. If you live in an apartment or house that doesn't have adequate garden space, swap out the decorative plants for fruits, veggies, and herbs that can grow in a pot or window planter box, such as strawberries and basil.
Making a conscious choice to seek out fruits and veggies with lower food miles is not always easy, but it boosts your exposure to nutrient-rich produce. As more people do this, collectively we’ll stop contributing money to today’s global food system, and encourage a shift that emphasizes health over economics.
Published on April 27, 2023
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