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Is our produce less nutritious than it was 50 years ago?

Sometimes discoveries are made in very unlikely ways…

Over a decade ago, a graduate student was doing research on zooplankton- microscopic animals that consume algae for their food source. The research scientists found that they could accelerate the growth of algae simply by exposing them to more light, and then better feed the zooplankton. But when the zooplankton ate that algae in abundance, the researchers were surprised to find that their growth actually was stunted. After deeper investigation, they discovered that because the algae grew so fast, it actually lessened the amount of nutrients they normally provided. The algae essentially became junk food with low nutrient value.

Fast forward over many years to when the curious student became a researcher. He couldn’t stop wondering if what he learned about algae could also be applied to the food we grow on farms. He knew that plants rely on sun and carbon dioxide to make sugar and to grow. He also knew that carbon dioxide levels on earth have been steadily increasing over the past few decades due to climate change. If carbon dioxide feeds plants, and plants are getting excessively high levels of carbon dioxide, then are the plants, just like the algae, lower in nutrients?

This researcher scoured scientific literature and found that indeed, all plants, trees, and grass are making more sugar than they used to, and becoming more like “junk food”. This coincides with the fact that carbon dioxide levels are rising.

It is a well- accepted fact that most of our fruits and vegetables have less minerals and vitamins than they did half a century ago. Yet our understanding of why levels have dropped isn’t well researched or discussed much. It has been assumed that the reason was because farmers were hybridizing for higher yield and sweeter and larger produce. But it’s possible that the more significant reason may someday be proven to be due to increased carbon dioxide levels.

This is still a cutting-edge concept. Not even top nutrition experts from places like John Hopkins University, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the University of Nebraska have explored the concept that higher carbon dioxide levels are the cause of less nutritious produce. But while scientists are sorting out the reasons for the decline in the quality of our food, many integrative physicians are seeing patients who have symptoms of nutritional deficiencies and are recommending vitamin supplements as compensation. That’s despite the fact that Americans have access to more food than the majority of the world does. So many people are overfed that over 65% of American adults are overweight or obese.

As a preventative measure, it may be worth considering adding a multivitamin to your daily routine, even if your diet is abundant in healthy foods. An integrative doctor can help you select high quality multivitamin which contains bioavailable forms of every nutrient.


J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Dec;23(6):669-82 Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999.

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