Delicious Living Blog

Is your produce on a junk food diet?

You know the rule: Only eat foods your grandmother would recognize. But even if you're opting for lots of wholesome produce, you may not be getting enough nutrients. Turns out, even our plants are eating junk food.

There’s no doubt: Plants protect us inside and out—from our tiniest blood vessels to the skin that shields us from head to toe. And aside from carrots giving you a construction-cone orange glow if you overconsume them, I’ve yet to discover a truly negative side effect from eating too much produce. You simply can’t get enough—and sadly most of us don’t.

But here’s a twist you may not have considered. Even if you meet the daily recommendations, if you eat conventional produce you may not be getting enough nutrients anyhow. Why? Conventionally grown plants are fed their own junk food: nitrogen fertilizer. Chuck Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at the Organic Center, brought up this important point yesterday during an interview for Delicious Living’s next annual organic issue (September 2012). 

Benbrook explains: “A big part of what’s wrong with the American diet can be traced to farmers using too much nitrogen fertilizer to keep pushing yields higher. When they apply nitrogen to crop fields, the plants can’t filter it out—the roots are going to draw up those nutrients. When a plant pulls extra nitrogen, the easiest thing it can do is to convert it into simple carbohydrates. So it gets converted to a form of sugar or starch. Both of those do little to add to the nutritional quality of food and they increase the likelihood that whatever antioxidants, vitamins, or minerals are going to get bound up into sugar, in a less bioavailable form.”

And the more sugar that is present in a food or in the digestive tract, the less bioavailable nutrients will be. Herein lies an important reason to opt for organic produce: “The fact that organic food is typically produced with less available nitrogen translates into lower sugar content; because of that, the nutrients tend to be present in aglycone [more bioavailable] form.”

“Just as many of the health problems in the human population can be traced to eating too much of the wrong kinds of foods, that don’t have a diverse array of nutrients, but that have a lot of saturated fat, calories, added sugar, added salt, the same is true in the plant world,” says Benbrook. “We have created less nutritionally balanced and less healthy foods that deliver more calories for each essential nutrient, because we’ve been feeding plants a junk food diet.”

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