We're breeding the nutrition out of our food

Image: Machiko Munakata made this "Sweet Corn" and shared the image in the Boing Boing Flickr Pool. 4.5 inches, hand-sewn, stuffed with polyfil.

In the New York Times this weekend, wild foods advocate Jo Robinson writes about how we've "been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers." Engineering crops to be sweeter, starchier, less bitter, and more calorie-packed makes them yummier, but changes their nutritional profile, and in turn our health.

The most interesting tidbit in this article: did you know that "Supersweet corn," the most popular corn strain by far, "was born in a cloud of radiation?"

Robinson's new book, "Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health," is out June 4, 2013.

Not entirely unrelated: protesters in some 400 cities throughout the world demonstrated against global food conglomerate Monsanto this weekend:

Organizers said “March Against Monsanto” protests were held in 52 countries and 436 cities, including Washington and Los Angeles, where demonstrators waved signs that read “Real Food 4 Real People” and “Label GMOs, It’s Our Right to Know.” Genetically modified plants are grown from seeds that are engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, add nutritional benefits or otherwise improve crop yields and increase the global food supply. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been genetically modified. But critics say genetically modified organisms can lead to serious health conditions and harm the environment.


    1.  The often cited average lifespan of about 30 years or so is largely due to the historically extremely high rate of child mortality. If a person survived childhood they could generally expect to live roughly as long as a modern human.

      1. I find this reasonable. Other variables such as surgical, technological, and pharmaceutical advances also have much to do with the age we live to today.

        1.  Not for long.  Antibiotics have a short shelf life now.  We need another big jump.

      2. For a pretty rough value of “roughly”.  They still didn’t reach modern life expectancies at birth, even after running the gauntlet of childhood.  There’s a table at Wikipedia: Life expectancy: Life expectancy variation over time.  The closest is the medieval Britons, who had a life expectancy at birth of 30, and those that survived to 21 lived (on average) 43 more years to die around 64.  The 2010 world average life expectancy– including the places with relatively poor health care– is 67.2 at birth.  (USAens who make it to 20 go on to make it to, on the average, 79.4, according to http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/your-life-expectancy-by-age— #36 out of 192 listed states.  Conveniently, making it to 64 after surviving to the age of 20 is Angola, #167 out of 192.)

    2. And, since Xeni already told you to read the article . .  I don’t have to. 

      But I would take this opportunity to let this BB article stand out in contrast to many of the “all-progress is good progress” BB articles.  I like science, and I like technology.  But those two things have also done much to make us fat, sad, toxified, and a major contributor to the destruction of the place that used to provide us with boundless phytonutrients.  So, it’s ok to look backward, sometimes. 

      1. I hope you didn’t go on to read the rest of the comments thread. Lot of scientism going on.

    3.  You lived until you were the last-in-line straggler running away from the cave bear, and then you were lunch.

    1. “We are more healthy” does not necessarily indicate that “our crops are more healthful.” 

      Access to some bananas is better than access to no bananas, but that says nothing about the merits of an engineered banana vs. a paleobanana.

      I’m not taking a position, just pointing out the flaw in your argument. Also I wanted an excuse to say paleobanana.

  1. I used to listen to an NPR radio program on the weekends about health and nutrition.  Once in a while they had someone that knew what they were talking about, but my rule was to turn it off as soon as they mentioned enemas.  Sometimes I only got to listen for 30 seconds before enemas were mentioned.

    1. Since you brought up enemas…I remember a middle school field trip to a Native American site.  It was obviously within a bus ride of where I grew up, but I don’t remember a whole lot of specifics about the natives themselves.  Other than the type of weapons they used and the fact that they would make and consume what amounts to ipecac as part of a ritual (at least once a year, maybe more, don’t remember).  The guide literally told us in no uncertain terms that everyone was literally puking and pooping for about 3 days straight….

      Maybe they were on to something?

  2. this is one of the first gardening books I ever bought: http://www.amazon.ca/Gardening-Maximum-Nutrition-Jerry-Minnich/dp/0878574751 – it outlines a steady decline in the nutrition of the foods we eat over the 20th century. the book was published in 1983, and things have gotten worse since. 

  3. Despite an obesity epidemic (because food is TOO nutritious calorie-wise and people have no self respect or personal responsibility) life expectancy is longer than ever.

    The childish anti-technology fantasists forget that these foragers had very limited local/seasonal choices and limited nutritional sources.  The insane range of global foods made available now far outweighs any theoretical lack of some mystery nutrient.

    When one of these “technology is bad” whiners goes off to live in a cave and forage for roots, I will consider maybe that they aren’t full of oppressive culture-of-fear “life is awful now” crap.

    1.  “people have no self respect or personal responsibility”

      I’m just gonna put that right there so everybody can appreciate the irony of your “fat people are fat because they’re mentally/morally weak” position while you’re simultaneously making the case that other people are backwards and primitive in their view of the world.

      1. I can’t even begin to figure out what point you think you made.

        In both cases people want to blame everyone but themselves for their unhappiness.  Fat people want to blame magical calories that cause fat to appear out of thin air rather than admit if you’re 50 pounds overweight it’s because you inserted at least 50 pounds of food your body  didn’t need into your face.

        And miserable people want to blame “them” for bad food, when in fact they have an insane range of healthy choices and record-long lifespans that our foraging ancestors would have joyously thanked the heavens to have had half as much.

        I’m happy with my choices, but it bothers me that people like the author and you want to spread your misery by frightening other people with this sensational pseudo-science.

      2. I can’t begin to figure out what point you thought you were making.

        But it’s about people who want to blame everyone else for their choices and unhappiness.

        Fat people want to blame “them” for making magical calories that cause fat to appear out of thin air.  They don’t want to admit that if they’re 50 pounds overweight, it’s because they chose to insert at least 50 pounds of food their body didn’t need into their faces.

        Ungrateful spoiled self-pitying people want to blame “them” for ruining food, and ignore the fact we have a fantastic choice of delicious and nutritious food that allows us life-spans 3 times as long as the cavemen they childishly fantasize had it so good.

        I’m happy with my choices, but I’m tired of people like this author and the people who are junkies for this Culture of Fear pseudo-science to spread their miserable mindset.

    2. Looking at not that recent history, it’s not crazy talk to say that we occasionally make wrong turns in nutrition.  Trans-fat margarine was at one point a generally accepted as a healthy alternative to butter.  White bread tastes better than whole grain breads, but, especially before the government mandated adding back several nutrients, was not a wise nutrition choice. Before the Finnish smokers study, there was a lot of consideration to gratuitous supplementing with  beta carotene.  It’s smart to consider that we have made nutritional choices, sometimes with well-intentioned preliminary scientific reasoning, and it should be recognized that the newest choice is not inherently the best choice.  “Technology is good” whiners who know what they’re talking about should realize that technology is a tool, not an inherent goal.  The history of developing food varieties has often been focused on what looks prettiest in the store and is most likely to be sold, vs. what is better in terms of nutrition.  

      1. Who are these people who say all technology is good?  Because I never said that. OBVIOUSLY bad things can happen in food production technology, but they can just as well happen with e-coli getting into your organic sprouts.

        My response to this book is the same as my response to the DAILY onslaught of Culture of Fear “news” stories about sensational things that get ratings and sell books – that don’t actually cause any harm.  Let’s get all upset our food isn’t as good as what cavemen ate and ignore the fact that we have 3 times longer lifespans, and fantastic choices for nutritious and delicious food to enjoy.

        No let’s find a reason to feel sorry for ourselves, be completely ungrateful for all the great gifts great minds have given us, and blame “them” for your unhappiness.  People who spread this diseased self-pity-party mindset piss me off.

        1. The people who say all technology is good exist in roughly the same amount as those who say all technology is bad.  Damn few, and hopefully they’re not on the internet.  No one ever said that, and you seemed to be using her as a straw man who advocates a return to savagery.  I’m not panicked about food choices, but it is interesting that we have made them, and the history of how we got to what we eat now from back then is interesting.  It is even more interesting to have examples of some old choices being better in terms of nutrition.  Do you know the origin of the carrot off the top of your head?  The author is talking about research and implications of the research for the modern diet, whereas you’re saying she should go live in a cave.  She comes across as more rational than you, and more chipper in tone. A lot of her book is pretty simple nutritional advice on varieties of foods, most of which are available in your grocery store, that may do better for you, with sourced research why.  Amazon lets you look through a bunch of her book, and maybe you should do that before spouting about the miracles of modern food and getting pissed off for no reason.  Unless that’s your hobby, far be it from me to question your life choices.

          1. As I made clear, and you ignored, my “hobby” is trying to counteract this onslaught of “everything we have is horrible” white people problems from scaring otherwise happy people into thinking what they’r e eating is going to kill them and making them insanely neurotic about every daily “news” item that what they were told is good for them yesterday is bad for them today.  

            I am thrilled with what I have to eat, and support any actual science to make it even better whether that’s restoring something that has been lost or something new.  There are better posts than mine here explaining why her science and logic are bogus, although the comparative life-spans of modern and prehistoric diets make it friggin obvious her article was just more “look at this and worry!  Buy my book or you will die!”

            If you want to be miserable and spend your days obsessing over contradictory trivial “expert” advice, have fun with that “life-choice”.  I’m going to a barbecue and going to enjoy every bite!

          2. Enjoy the barbecue.  I think being able to enjoy and appreciate a wide variety of foods is great.  Many people all around the world eat a wide range of foods and live to happy old ages.  I do like food, and cooking, a lot, and hearing history or biochemical details of food has never made me miserable.  I would support more science on the topic as well.  I’ve worked in science and studied enough to know that there are and will always be contradictions and different perspectives (particle or wave?) on existing theories and that is part of the fun of science.  If I thought her treatise was just buy my book or die, I wouldn’t be into it.  My take on her has come to a different conclusion than yours.  I read a lot of cookbooks, and books on food, and journal articles on nutrition, and am interested in different perspectives. 

  4. This book’s claims don’t pass the sniff test.  Ask any anthropologist: human nutrition has improved greatly over the past century as indicated by average heights of adults.  Fashionable nutrition frauds have nothing to do with it: the problem was not enough protein, calories and vitamins due to poverty or ignorance.  

    1. I would sniff your assumption that taller is inherently healthier.  It has been suggested there is a small association of height, intelligence and cardiovascular health, but it has also been suggested there is a small association of smaller frame, decreased cancer risk and overall longevity. There may also be a higher amount of growth factors introduced into the western diet from agriculture that could be partly responsible for increases in height. Yes, malnutrition will lead to shortened stature, but I don’t believe the book is advocating a return to frank malnutrition.

    2. Given that most Americans and Western Europeans can get enough calories.  What’s the next step in good nutrition?   It’s more complex than just “calorieez iz caloreez”….

      1. The next step is to actually open a textbook on nutrition that is not laden with Food Woo.

        People have a huge appetite for pseudoscience about food.  But what’s really sad is when they commit to pseudoscience and retreat into random excuses the way Snig does.

        There’s a saying in the skeptic community: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  [To be credible.]  Real nutrition research is HARD WORK: and it is patently obvious that Robinson hasn’t done ANY work, just constructed a story out of factoids

        1. You’ve read the book and not just the short article on the NYTimes site? Or are you making assumptions based on the article whilst harping on about a lack of proof?

  5. I’m stunned anyone came here to attack this idea.  It’s pathetic.

    Growers aren’t necessarily aiming to breed the nourishment out, it’s simply collateral damage in the war against less profit.  What grows faster, more, is better, and can fill up supermarket shelves better.

    Maris Widgeon wheat is a classic.  It’s tastier and more nutritious than the bog standard Canadian wheat, but is hard to grow and has less output.  So it’s hard to find.

    And talking of hard to find, the population is so inured to shit food, they don’t even know they should be looking.  The marketing has beaten the living shit out of their senses, and they’ve forgotten or ignored every diet message from their forebears.  So much so they don’t even realise there is a choice.

    Look at the obesity in the USA.  For Fucks Sake.

    I’m reading a bunch of denialist posts here that can only pass muster with idiots.

    Of course average nutrition can be said to have improved in some total population definition.   But nutrition is by no means optimal, which should be where we’re aiming.  For everyone.

    Our foodchains are getting more and more fucked.  I went out to buy bread today, and there are so many additives and extras in ‘wholemeal’ that my mind spun.  And under UK law, they don’t have to list ‘processing aids’, which one would presume disappear from the final product, but they don’t.  Nor wheat additives and stabilisers.

    I bake, from scratch – water, flour, salt.  That’s it.  Kids don’t like it as much as the crap, but I’m working on that.

    So if I can’t buy a fucking loaf of unadulterated bread to feed my family – a modestly unsophisticated product – where do we stand?

    Don’t tell me the premise isn’t accurate.

    1. Enjoy your misery, in an age of abundance with with record long lifespans, some people will always want to feel sorry for themselves and play the misery-loves-company troll. In the past 2 days I’ve had walnuts, salmon, pomegranate, brown rice, chicken, turkey, 4 kinds of peppers, black beans, almonds, honey, ginger, 2 kinds of onions, etc  etc, but you go live in a cave and eat roots and tree bark, and leave the rest of us to enjoy life.

      1.  Do you work for a food corporation?

        Casting a critic as a hermit hippy is kind of corporate tactic number one.  And you couldn’t possibly deduce from my comment that kind of lifestyle.

        Bit of a random comment, eh?

        1. You called all the people here you disagree with IDIOTS and that’s OK, right?  Then you claim I called you a hippy (where?) probably because in your self-imposed neurotic misery you enjoy worrying that’s what people are thinking.

          You failed to respond to any of the LOGICAL arguments that we have an increased lifespan from the amazing choices we now have.  You want to fantasize that sometime in the past was soooo much better, because like a spoiled child, you can never be grateful for anything you have.

          I’m all for regulation but bad food can be produced by GMO or traditional farming, organic sprouts are a major problem for e coli. 

          So keep finding whiny culture of fear sensational pseudo-science to get upset about, the author is very grateful for your support, you are exactly the kind of self-absorbed self-pitying consumer she is depending on.

        2. You called all the people here you disagree with IDIOTS and that’s OK, right?  Then you claim I called you a hippy (where?) probably because in your self-imposed neurotic misery you enjoy worrying that’s what people are thinking.You failed to respond to any of the LOGICAL arguments that we have an increased lifespan from the amazing choices we now have.  You want to fantasize that sometime in the past was soooo much better, because like a spoiled child, you can never be grateful for anything you have.I’m all for regulation but bad food can be produced by GMO or traditional farming, organic sprouts are a major problem for e coli. So keep finding whiny culture of fear sensational pseudo-science to get upset about, the author is very grateful for your support, you are exactly the kind of self-absorbed self-pitying consumer she is depending on.

          1. *oh*

            I looked in the mirror for a while after reading that, and saw that everything you said was true.

            I think you just saved me thousands in psych fees.  Thanks!

            Who’d have ever thought a food corp troll could give so much, with so little?

          2. Still writing and still failing to respond to any actual logic or facts, just name calling people who disagree with you idiots and  corporate trolls (my friends will get a laugh that someone called me that).  Maybe you should rethink the psych fees, I’d rather you spread your oppressive anti-pleasure neurosis there than try to scare other people with your pseudo-science panic attack.

    2. We have no idea if the premise is accurate. There is very little high quality research demonstrating that “phytochemicals” have a measurable impact on human health or disease. It would be nice if that were so, but assuming that it is true because “it worked for our ancestors” and “people are fat now” is completely illogical and exemplifies the naturalistic fallacy. Just because people used to eat it or a vegetable/fruit is “older” or “more natural” does not make it healthier – every single food item you eat on a regular basis has undergone strong and intense selection by humans to maximize certain properties (taste being one), and GMO vs radiation vs selective breeding is irrelevant, as at the end of the day all you are left with is changes in the genetic code. DNA/RNA molecules are degraded in the gut, so the genes themselves can’t affect your body directly (except to provide nucleotides for our own anabolism). 

      Some of that “processing” you despise so much has essentially eliminated neural tube defects, folate deficiency, and iron deficiency from developed countries (folic acid and Fe added to wheat). Preservatives prevent nasty things like fungus, because not everyone has the time to bake bread from scratch or buy it from the expensive bakery and people need healthy, disease-free food at a reasonable cost. Your ability (in terms of time, know-how, and the space in which to do so) to make bread from scratch is a luxury item in the modern developed world. 

      With over 10,000 “phytochemicals,” I agree that it is highly likely that some of them are beneficial to health (lycopene seems the strongest candidate at this point, but evidence is mixed and difficult to interpret), and some are detrimental (atropine, paclitaxel, and ricin – all potent toxins – are all “phytochemicals” that will kill you or seriously injure you if you ingest them). Complicating things, most compounds in plants with negative biologic effects (e.g. poisons) have a bitter taste, so it is highly likely that most animals experienced strong selective pressure to avoid bitter foods (with some research suggesting that the mechanism of taste developed through selective pressure to avoid toxins).

      My major issue with this article is that the NYT essentially published an advertisement for the author’s book disguised as a serious scientific piece. The author also has an unfortunate tendency to state controversial and unproven assumptions based on the naturalistic fallacy as fact, and there is nary an attempt to provide a source for the “scientific” claims. 

      All that having been said, I grow my own vegetables because I like the taste, because monoculture of anything is never a good idea (more susceptible to disease, less variety), because I like the variety I’m able to grow, and because I think the idea of local/heirloom crops is just neat. Monsanto has done wonderful things with increasing the nutritive value of some crops (see Golden Rice), and they also have terrible business practices that I agree should be changed. It’s complicated, and Jo Robinson does a terrible disservice by breaking the argument into a black/white view of “old = phytochemicals = good = healthy” and “new = sugar = bad = disease.”

      1.  Fair enough on the oversimplification of ‘old / new’.  My beef is that the food industry overall is, rather than aiming for a humanitarian goal of optimising nutrition, aiming for a goal of optimising profit.

        In doing so we’ve had disaster after disaster in the production of food, and those are just the headline news.

        Behind that top of the pyramid that is that news is a broadening base of practice that delivers the worst quality that people will pay for.  When people are confused or ignorant about what they pay for, they consume stuff that leads to a shortened life with greater numbers of illness.

        I don’t deprive myself, and eat what I fancy, which is varied, but I do focus on organically produced foods and healthier conditions for animals.

        As for baking – it’s easy.  It’s fast.  We’ve just become used to the idea that food should be so stupidly easy that we only have to pop a container into the microwave.

        That’s sad for our health, sad for my taxes paying for ever-iller people to recover, and sad for everyone’s enjoyment of food.

  6. The premise isn’t accurate.

    The problems of the modern diet aside, our ancestors bred characteristics out of plants not to make them more desirable for Monsanto to patent, but to make them edible. For instance, ancient corn was tiny, only a couple of inches long. Apricots had only a thin layer of fruit around a large pit, and we bred them to be the other way round. Almonds were full of cyanide. 

    There’s lots wrong with the modern diet, but you don’t fix that by idealizing a non-existent past.

    Granted, I’m no expert. Here’s someone who is, an anthropologist who studies how ancient peoples ate: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Debunking-the-Paleo-Diet-Christ

    1.  And you can still get ornamental almond trees with all that delicious natural cyanide kids love.

  7. A “cloud of radiation”?  How am I supposed to take someone seriously on a scientific matter if they say things this dumb?

    Lots of genetic variation has a radiological origin and that has no bearing on anything.
    Very disappointing.

  8. Blah blah blah stupid hippies blah blah blah your only two choices are caveman life or super technological future modern society blah blah stop questioning inevitable forward progress /s

  9. There are also thousands and thousands of plant compounds that are bad for human health, and all sorts of fertility studies etc going back decades.  Wouldn’t wild plants evolve to render us sterile?

    Anyway, it looks like the anti-vaxxers are moving into the anti-GMO area, because GMO plants now cause autism!  TFFW


    “……….Plant-killer Glyphosate (Roundup) was assumed to be harmless to humans
    because it interrupts the shikimate pathway in plants and kills them,
    and humans do not have this pathway.
    What has now come to light is that our gut bacteria DO have the
    shikimate pathway, and by killing our good bacteria (we have 10 gut
    microbes for every human cell), a cascade of effects occurs which are
    devastating to health and are linked to autism,
    inflammatory bowel disease, chronic diarrhea, colitis and Crohn’s
    disease, obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, cancer, cachexia,
    Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and ALS,
    and more…….”

  10. Jeezus, what a messy article. For once, it’s worth reading it’s original comments- most of the flaws are pointed out better there than here.

  11. There was an article about a month ago in the NY Times about a middle school student who decided to run an experiment using fruit flies to determine if there was any difference between organic and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.  Her research won her the 2011 Broadcom Masters national science competition.

    Turns out, the data wasn’t even close.  Her parents no longer argue about whether or not to pay the premium for organic:


  12. I can believe the claim that some compounds more abundant in wild varieties are good for your health (but also some bad compounds will be there, like solanins in potatoes/tomatoes and cyanide in cassava) .  However, instead of going blindly to look for the wild, original varieties, what we should is identify the compounds and the genes responsible for it, to sequence just not the regular, mainstream varieties, but every single variety we can find, characterize them, understand them and isolate the traits. Then we can start an extensive program of breeding new varieties actually knowing what we are doing, even using genetic engineering to move traits between strains.

    So, it really pisses me off when this kind of news is mixed casually with opposition to GMOs. Genetic modification is a tool that can be used for many purposes, including creating better, tastier, longer lasting varieties adapted to local soil and weather. 

    To me every time that people chooses to be ignorant and pretend it’s either organics or GMO, not realizing the huge potential for more diversity, better crops, if we just stop being paranoid, make a sensible evaluation of risk on case by case basis., every time I see that, I just have to facepalm extra hard.

    1. Studying genetic modification is one thing….assuming that we *can* identify the individual components well enough to “know what we’re doing” is another.

      Ingesting all the nutrients we “know” exist in a particular item of food via lab-produced chemicals still doesn’t give the benefits of actually eating the food itself.  We don’t know how everything binds together.  We need to keep studying, absolutely, but let’s not kid ourselves that we know enough yet.

      1. We don’t know everything, sure, still, knowing what we are eating and trying to make sense of it and improving it beats random luck.

        “Ingesting all the nutrients we “know” exist in a particular item of food via lab-produced chemicals still doesn’t give the benefits of actually eating the food itself. “What I am proposing is not supplements, but better crops. 

        1. The problem is that every study gets turned into a badly written article and made into a product.  Somebody (the nutrition industry, the media, the government) is going to have to do centuries of penance for the Carbohydrate Revolution.

          1. Well, that’s one of the reasons why I am so happy about citizen science and DIY Bio. We need to start tackling those problems ourselves, not waiting until Monsanto does it for us. Now we cannot, but in 30 years, things will be very different.

  13. The NYT has retracted the claim that radiation caused supersweet corn, which raises one interesting and one depressing question. The former: where did the radiation story come from? The latter: how many blogs that linked to this, with “cloud of radiation” as the hook, will post a correction?

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