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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Where have all the nutrients gone?
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John W. Finley

The lead ABC news story for April 6 was, that for the first time, a major medical group has recommended nutritional supplements for healthy adults. Although the recommendation was quite narrow (folate and vitamin B12 for specific groups), ABC news seemed to imply more. The causal listener may have thought they heard a recommendation for supplements in general. Moreover, some listeners may have also thought they heard that supplements were recommended because food no longer contained nutrients in sufficient quantities for optimal health.

I have heard this indictment before: Because of intense food production--employing the use of irrigation, hydroponics, fertilizer for plants and hormones for animals--food today allegedly does not contain nutrients. It looks good, tastes tolerable, but is devoid of any food value except calories.

Is this true? After all, food isn't produced the old- fashion way. Corn isn't lovingly plucked one ripe ear at a time. Tomatoes don't ripen on the vine, and chickens spend their life in cages--not running and scratching in grandma's flowers. So surely something is amiss.

We baby boomers grew up with science according to Walt Disney, who taught us about the "Circle of Life"; all life joins together to sustain one big happy earth family. Plants are there for animals to eat, therefore "natural" plants are the ultimate and perfect source of nutrients, right? Not entirely! Plants are there for only one reason--to propagate more of their kind. If a nutrient is in a plant, it is because a) the plant needs it to survive and reproduce or b) the plant was unable to keep it out. If it is needed but not there, the plant will not produce, regardless of how much fertilizer is used.

This is not to say that food today isn't missing something from yesteryear; in fact, quite a few things are missing. That tasteless corn has been sprayed with a fungicide and consequently is missing aflatoxin, a product of a fungus that grows on "natural" corn and is a potent carcinogen. Caged chickens are missing a key component of grandma's chickens--parasites--ones that reduced the growth of chickens and of children that became infected with them. And the fact that the corn and chickens grow larger and reproduce better means that they are still full of all the "good" nutrients.

So if the food is good, why do we need supplements? Surely something is 'unnatural' if we need more nutrients than 'natural' food supplies. Something is unnatural, but not what you think. Vitamin B12 supplementation was recommended for the elderly because they lack a protein needed for absorption of dietary B12. What is not 'natural' is that so many people are 'elderly'. In nature, few animals live to an old age. Most reproduce, prepare their young for reproduction, and then die. Nature has no advantage in all of us living to 90, so our desire to live an artificially long life means we may have to use some artificial nutritional supplements along the way.

And the recommendation to supplement with folate comes from evidence that it prevents spina bifida. Contrary to what we wish to think, nature is cruel and is interested in survival of the species, not individuals. Consequently, reproductive systems ensure that enough young survive to propagate the next generation; they do not ensure a perfect offspring every time. But our human emotions and values are in conflict with nature because we want to love and care for each child. So 'natural' food is good for what nature intended; we want and need more because of our values and emotions. Hence supplements.

So in summary, our food is as nutritious as always--it just wasn't designed for all of what we want as humans. The best advice is to eat a variety of foods in moderation, supplement folate if you contemplate pregnancy, B12 when you are past 50 and , "Don't worry - be happy".

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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