In an ideal world, we would be eating a perfect, plant-based, organic diet that provided us with all the nutrients we could possibly need. But even if we were able to achieve the perfect diet, we still wouldn’t be guaranteed the optimal doses of all the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that our body needs. The reality is that there are a lot of variables in the nutrition quality that plants actually deliver.

Because of inconsistencies in nutrient quantity/quality in our produce, it becomes complicated to study the topic. Research has tried to determine if organic produce has more nutrients than non-organic. But because not all carrots are built the same, there hasn’t been a clear cut answer. There are wide variations based on where produce is grown: the mineral content in that particular patch of soil, the type of fertilizer used, climate and growing conditions. All these factors affect the nutrient composition. And this highlights the fact that we can’t be guaranteed that eating lots of vegetables is necessarily going to provide our nutritional requirements.

Over the years, farmers have also been selecting varieties that taste best to improve sales. But the varieties that are selected tend to have overall lower nutrient content. The best plant phytochemicals tend to have the strongest flavors, such as bitterness, so those varieties are weeded out. People prefer to eat sweeter varieties, which usually contain a lot more sugar and fewer nutrients. For example, the colorful “Indian corn” from the 1600s was rich in anthocyanin flavonoids, a type of antioxidant known for significant cardiovascular benefits. Since then, corn has been hybridized over and over until we now have a pale yellow, super sweet corn that lacks nutrition but has plenty of sugar. Plus we have an ever-growing list of GMOs (genetically modified organism) to consider, and there is not enough research yet to determine their safety. Some would argue that GMO foods currently have significantly less nutrient value.

Lastly, when we cook vegetables, the cooking time, method, and temperature will impact the amount of nutrients that are lost. You can lose up to 75% of a particular nutrient with certain cooking methods. Lightly steaming vegetables and leaving a little crunch is the best way to preserve vitamins.

None of this is meant to discourage anyone from eating a healthy diet packed with produce and certainly a multivitamin can’t replace a healthy meal. But a multi helps fill in those unknown gaps when produce just doesn’t live up to its expectations.

New York Times Sunday Review, May 25, 2013
Scientific American Blog, August 11, 2011
World’s Healthiest Foods, George Mateljan Foundation

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