Is produce losing its punch?

January 18, 2011

By Elizabeth DeVos

A customer and a store worker share a conversation at a table of the early-season offerings during the 2009 opening day at Newcastle Fruit and Produce. By Greg Farrar

Eating the recommended two cups of fruits and two-and-a-half cups of vegetables may no longer be enough to get the nutrients that our bodies need in order to survive.

A little more than a decade ago, Anne-Marie Mayer conducted research on 20 United Kingdom-based crops from 1930-1980. What she found was that the mineral concentrations in fruits and vegetables were decreasing.

No longer is produce as healthy as once thought.

The decrease in nutritional value is not just centered in British crops, but crops in the United States, as well.

In 2004, University of Texas research assistant Donald Davis looked at data from 43 different varieties of produce from 1950-1999. Davis found that in 1950 broccoli had 130 milligrams of calcium, today that amount has dropped to just 48 milligrams.

Calcium isn’t the only nutrient decreasing in produce. Davis’ study found that protein, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, vitamin C and many other nutrients are declining.

Still, people looking for a snack shouldn’t shy away from today’s produce.

“Even though they say that the nutrients are less, the amount of nutrients in food is still very high,” said Barbara Phippard, a clinical dietitian at Virginia Mason Issaquah. “People shouldn’t be afraid that food doesn’t contain any nutrition.”

Many Americans wonder why nutrients are disappearing.

Due to the high demand from consumers for bigger produce items, farmers are selectively breeding and using synthetic fertilizers to help their crops grow not only bigger, but faster, too. By speeding up the growing process, produce does not have the time to develop the nutrients or absorbed them from the soil.

According to Jeanne Cullen, a clinical dietitian at Overlake Hospital Outpatient, it is recommended that consumers buy organic fruits and vegetables because they are more nutrient dense.

“If more people start buying organic, then there will be a high demand for organic farms,” she said. “And more organic farmers will help drive the prices down.”

Most people can tell the difference in taste quality of conventionally grown produce versus organically grown.

“Organically grown fruits are much sweeter than conventionally grown ones,” Cullen said.

If buying all organic does not fit into your pocketbook, buy a select few. Farmers typically use pesticides on 12 types of produce that should be bought organically, if possible.

The “dirty dozen,” according to Cullen, includes apples, celery, cherries, lettuce, grapes, peaches, pears, potatoes, nectarines, spinach, strawberries and bell peppers.

There are 15 produce items that are considered clean, even though they are not organic, according to Tarynne Mingione, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition specialist at Swedish Medical Center in Issaquah. These include onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, mangos, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, papaya, watermelon, broccoli, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.

“These foods have the least amounts of pesticides,” she said.

There are ways to get the most nutrients out of foods that won’t put a huge dent into your pocket book.

Many people buy pre-cut produce, according to Cullen. She warns that once you cut into food, it decreases the amount of nutrients in it. It’s better to buy whole produce instead of precut, and it’s important to wash produce to removing pesticides.

Buy fresh food at the Issaquah Farmers Market

Buying produce directly from farmers, at a local farmers market, can be a cheaper alternative than buying organic. These farmers might be in a transitional stage from conventionally grown crops to organic crops. There are also many local farms that allow people to essentially own a share of the farm. In turn these shareowners are able to go to the farm once a week and purchase produce directly from the farm, according to Tarynne Mingione, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition specialist at Swedish Medical Center in Issaquah.

The Issaquah Farmers Market hosts about 35 registered produce vendors according to Jera Gilmore, farmers market manager and events coordinator for the city of Issaquah.

“On an average summer Saturday we have about 27 of them attending,” she said.

The 2011 farmers market runs from April 16 to Oct. 8.

Buy bold or brightly colored produce, because these richly colored crops will contain a higher number of healthy photochemicals.

Consumers can also try a different color, because colorful produce has more antioxidants. Always consume produce within a week of purchasing it.

To get the most nutrients out of your fruits and vegetables, it’s suggested that they are not boiled in water and cooked, but rather steamed, or cooked in a stir-fry with olive oil.

Olive oil is also good for drawing out the nutrients in tomatoes, said Barbara Phippard, clinical dietitian at Virginia Mason Issaquah.

Other ways to get the most out of vegetables is to bake them; some people roast them.

Elizabeth DeVos is a former Press intern. Reporter Laura Geggel contributed to this report. Comment at

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