Fruits and vegetables are a vital component of a healthy diet—so vital that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends nine servings per day. Consuming nine servings is a good idea, but quality matters just as much as quantity—and some research indicates that the nutrient levels of our produce are on the decline.
This isn’t junk science. There is real data to show that fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they were 50 years ago.[i] The reasons for the decline aren’t entirely clear, but researchers have speculated that it might be the result of a variety of factors, including higher crop yields and depleted soils. When the number of crops grown in a given space increases, the nutrient levels of the crops decrease.[ii]What’s more, our use of pesticides and herbicides may be depleting the soil and damaging the plants. Healthy soil is critical for healthy plants; depleted soil translates to depleted nutritional content.
Reduced nutritional content, however, does not translate to a reduced need for fruits and vegetables. How can you make sure your nine servings are delivering the highest nutrient levels possible? Choose quality. Here’s how:
Go local: Locally grown food comes with a variety of benefits. It is usually fresher because it spends less time traveling from the farm to your plate. What’s more, many small, local farmers choose to use organic farming methods—meaning your produce isn’t laced with pesticides and herbicides that deplete the soil and its nutrients. Fruits and vegetables lose nutrients over time after they are harvested, so the fresher the produce, the higher the nutrient profile. If you want the most nutritious, local produce, grow your own or visit your local farmers’ market.
Go frozen: Yes, fresh from the farm is best—but when that is not possible, frozen produce is surprisingly high in nutrients. When produce is frozen right after harvest, it often retains more nutrients than the “fresh” produce that has traveled thousands of miles to your local grocery store.
Go organic: Organic produce might look smaller and less appealing, but it carries lower levels of pesticides and often has a higher nutrient profile.
Reduce chopping: Exposure to air results in loss of nutrients—and the greater the exposure, the higher the loss. When preparing fruits and vegetables, larger pieces may retain more nutrients than those finely chopped pieces, so keep chopping to a minimum whenever possible.
Minimize cooking time: Most fruits and vegetables lose nutrients with cooking—of course, tomatoes are an exception. You don’t have to become a raw foodie to reap the benefits of fruits and vegetables—just keep cooking time to a minimum and avoid too much contact with water. The longer you cook your veggies, the more nutrients they lose. Instead of boiling your veggies in water until they are soggy, opt for steaming, blanching, or stir-frying. This will help retain valuable nutrients. A good rule of thumb is to keep your veggies crisp, whether cooked or raw.
[i] White PJ, Broadley MR. Historical variation in the mineral composition of edible horticultural products. Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology. 2005; 80:660-667.
[ii] Davis DR. Declining fruit and vegetable nutrient composition: What is the evidence? HortScience. 2009; 44(1): 15-19.