Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food

NY Times | May 25, 2013

By JO ROBINSON

WE like the idea that food can be the answer to our ills, that if we eat nutritious foods we won’t need medicine or supplements. We have valued this notion for a long, long time. The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Today, medical experts concur. If we heap our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, they tell us, we will come closer to optimum health.

This health directive needs to be revised. If we want to get maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables, we must choose the right varieties. Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

These insights have been made possible by new technology that has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants with the produce in our supermarkets. The results are startling.

Wild dandelions, once a springtime treat for Native Americans, have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach, which we consider a “superfood.”

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