Scientific American presents Nutrition Diva by Quick & Dirty Tips. Scientific American and Quick & Dirty Tips are both Macmillan companies.

Several Nutrition Diva fans have asked me to comment on the article entitled “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” which appeared recently in The New York Times. The author, Jo Robinson, observes that humans naturally prefer fruits and vegetables with more sugar and starch and that the varieties we’ve cultivated over the millennia reflect those tastes. But, she points out, these tastier varieties tend to be lower in phytonutrients, which often impart a bitter taste to foods. She suggests that eating your veggies isn’t going to keep you healthy if you’re eating modern cultivars.

This anxiety that fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they used to be is not new, and I’ve addressed it in a previous podcast. But a high profile article like this is sure to breathe new life into this anxiety. While Robinson has gathered interesting data to support her argument, some of her reasoning doesn’t seem logical to me, and I don’t agree with all of her conclusions.

It’s Only Nutritious If You Eat It
For example, Robinson points out that today’s apples contain less than half the phytonutrients found in the wild crab apples from which modern apples descended. But is this really a fair comparison? Have you ever tried to eat a crab apple that hadn’t been cooked in sugar syrup? They’re barely edible! How many crab apples do you think your kids are going to eat? I would argue that the cultivation of the modern apple—palatable, portable, and ubiquitous—has probably vastly increased the average human’s intake of apple polyphenols and not the opposite.

Robinson also lauds the nutritional superiority of purple carrots and potatoes, but glosses over the fact that the ones you’re likely to find at your grocer are brand new varieties that have been specifically cultivated for their color and nutritional content. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse modern agriculture of systematically stripping the nutrients from our food supply. In some cases, it is actively engaged in breeding more nutrition in.


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