The Benefits of Local Foods

Local foods preserve heirloom seeds while also helping your family eat healthier and save money.

| Summer 2012

When you walk through a typical grocery store produce section, the foods you see might appear impressive: shiny green apples, bright red tomatoes, large, uniform-looking bell peppers without the slightest blemish. But a deeper look into these foods reveals one of the industrial food system’s biggest secrets: Most fruits and vegetables today are far less nutritious than they ever were before.

More people are joining the exciting movement of growing backyard gardens and choosing local, seasonal foods grown on a small scale without chemicals — and the reasons for doing so are many. Local, organically grown foods are better for the environment; they are free of the pesticide residues on typical grocery store produce; homegrown food tastes better; growing backyard vegetables is fun and can save a family money; and buying produce from farmers nearby helps build a vibrant local economy.

These arguments make sense, and they’re gaining traction. Now, thanks to research done on the nutritional content of vegetables and fruits over time, there’s another important reason to ditch industrially grown produce: Homegrown food is just plain better for you, providing more of the nutrients you need.

What the Research Shows

The way most food is grown today — using limited cultivars on large monocultures with heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides — is so different than it was 50 or 100 years ago that researchers began asking questions, investigating how growing methods might be affecting the foods themselves.

Some of the most comprehensive research on the nutrient decline of industrial fruits and vegetables was conducted by Donald Davis and colleagues at the University of Texas Biochemical Institute. The team analyzed nutrient data over a 50-year period for 43 common crops, from broccoli, spinach and tomatoes to strawberries, sweet corn and melons. The results were jaw-dropping. Among the findings were a 16 percent overall decline in calcium, a 9 percent decline in phosphorus, a 15 percent drop in iron, a 20 percent decline in vitamin C and a 38 percent drop in riboflavin. Almost all of the tested nutrient levels had declined.

A different research study published in the British Food Journal showed a dramatic fall in the nutrient content of spinach over time. Its potassium content dropped by 53 percent, its phosphorus by 70 percent, its iron by 60 percent and its copper by 96 percent. The same study explained that a person would have to eat three apples in 1991 to receive the same iron content as they would have gotten by eating one apple in 1940.

Other studies show a similar trend: We are growing the bulk of our food — including staple crops such as wheat and corn — in a way that makes it less nutritious.

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