Vegetables Were Healthier Fifty Years Ago

The heirloom tomatoes in your garden may not just be tastier than commercially grown vegetables, but healthier too, according to a study from the American College of Nutrition. The study looked for 13 nutrients in 43 crops grown from 1950 to 1999 and discovered that the vegetables enjoyed by our grandparents were significantly more nutritious than the veggies found on supermarket shelves today.

After rigorous statistical analysis, the researchers found that, on average, all three minerals evaluated have declined; two of five vitamins have declined; and protein content has dropped by 6 percent.

The decline is attributed to the relentless pursuit of crop strains that produce high yields, but few nutrients. One solution, short of agribusiness embracing lower-yielding crop strains or starting a vegetable garden, is to patronize farm stands and farmer’s markets where you can buy from smaller, multi-crop farmers that value quality above quantity.

Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999 [Journal of the American College of Nutrition via The Conocopia Institute]
(Photo: androog)

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  1. I don’t eat tomatoes very often, but that picture scares me. Yellow and pink? Blech!

    Also, yeah, you can find AWESOME veggies and fruits at farmer’s markets!

  2. snowferret says:

    Yeah this is the whole theory in that book “The End Of Food” Isnt it?

  3. gamble says:

    One time when I was younger, my parents and I were driving on some back road and we passed a roadside stand in front of someone’s house and we stopped there. The lady there had all kinds of stuff, including pineapples. She told us that she grew the pineapples in her back yard.

    This is in Ohio.

    On closer inspection we noticed that some of the fruit and vegetables she was selling had Del Monte stickers on them.

  4. Christovir says:

    Mmm… Yellow and pink tomatoes can be lovely. I’ve grown several heirloom varieties, and there is no question that heirlooms are so much tastier than the mealy tomaotes in the supermarkets. It does not surprise me that they are healthier either. I’m growing Brandywine (which is pink) and Yellow Perfection this year.

    At supermarkets, people can only evaluate food based on appearance before they buy it and taste it. So, doubtlessly, image wins over substance. Go to a farmer’s market (or your own backgarden) and you’ll taste flavors you never knew could come from a vegetable.

  5. feralparakeet says:

    I’m growing tomatoes for the first time this year, and I have to say I was surprised at how easy it is, even for a brown thumb like me. I’ve picked three so far and only eaten one, but the difference is absolutely amazing. When you get one that -really- ripens on the vine (the vine-ripened tomatoes in the store can legally be picked as soon as they turn orange, they don’t actually ripen all the way), you can definitely taste it.

    So it’s better for me too? That’s reason enough to use more plants next year :)

  6. superlayne says:

    I used to have a bunch of tomatoes…but..
    They died. D:

    I grew my own salad once…

  7. yahonza says:

    I’m willing to bet that Tomatoes today are much much much less expensive also.

  8. olegna says:

    I tossed down some aged manure mixed with compost and 17 tomato plants the last time I had a back yard. It was awesome to have an abundance of garden-fresh toms. It was also great to just sit in a hammock next to the freshly watered plants (esp. in August when they’re real tall and grown over the wire mesh).

    If you find yourself with way too many toms, just borrow or buy an air dehydrator and make TOMATO CHIPS! Seriously, slice them, dry them, and you got an amazingly healthy, crunchy and sweet snack.

    My favorites are plum tomatoes — they a little larger than cherry ones and shaped like romas.

    Of course, it’s way too late to start this year.

  9. “relentless pursuit of crop strains that produce high yields”

    …and also ship well. That’s the real tomato-flavor-killer.

  10. andrewsmash says:

    Part of the problem is that corporate farming methods are much different than sustainable farming. There is less crop diversification and rotation, so the soil never gets to regenerate. As obnoxious as crop burning season gets, it’s what’s needed as part of the old-fashioned farming magic.

  11. TechnoDestructo says:

    I wonder if this has made America fatter.

    Less nutrients, more cravings. More cravings, more eating.

    More eating, more profit!

  12. bhall03 says:

    What happened to the sting operation you have been promising us for a few weeks now???

  13. SunsetKid says:

    Not so much about the content but about your syntax.
    Vegetables are not healthy. Healthy means the state of your wellness. YOU are healthy. Vegetables should be healthful.

    I know this is a losing battle but please consider this valid distinction next time you post a similar item.

  14. FLConsumer says:

    @TechnoDestructo: Nah, nutrient content has nothing to do with satiation.

  15. T-chick says:

    Well, sure, the tomatoes are less expensive these days. Most things are. But if things get cheaper by sacrificing quality, or durability, or (apparently) nutrition, then it’s hardly an improvement.

    “Cheap” is not a compliment.

  16. Mom2Talavera says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: I recommend everyone see this cool documentary called
    Future of food!

    Clip one about Monsanto & the FDA
    [www.vsocial.com]

    Clip two about GMO foods
    [www.vsocial.com]

    I belong to a community Organic garden at this Eco village. Its lots of work but very rewarding!

  17. TechnoDestructo says:

    @FLConsumer:

    Explain animals and mineral licks.

  18. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    Personally, I try to refrain from consuming 50 year old vegetables.

    Fruits and vegetables that you buy in the supermarket are of varieties that have the longest shelf life and highest yield, not the ones that are best tasting and most nutritious. The food distributors and stores want tomatoes that don’t rot in the storeroom or on the shelf.

  19. tadowguy says:

    I hope the people that reviewed the 1950s food weren’t the same doctors that recommended Chesterfield cigarettes.

  20. suburbancowboy says:

    Organic produce has much higher nutritional content than that sprayed with pesticides.

  21. 2Legit2Quit says:

    Yea but my grandparents are dead. See where eating healthy got them?

  22. bohemian says:

    From the garden or from the local organic vendor. Planning on freezing or canning a bunch to help get through the winter.

  23. 60 In 3 says:

    I’ve switched to farmer’s markets for all my fruit and vegetable needs. The produce is tastier, the prices are lower and I get to support local business and farms rather than someone half a world away. Now it seems like the things I buy are healthier too. I can’t see any reason to go back to shopping at the supermarket.

  24. Televiper says:

    “The End of Food” by Thomas F. Pawlick: covers this topic and others related to in diverse detail. It includes the changes in farming methods and why they are damaging our food supply. BTW.. the term “End of Food” refers to the point where %toxicity is higher than the %nutritional content.

  25. asynja says:

    I think they mean “healthful” and not “healthy”.

  26. flyover says:

    Perhaps there should be a link about heirloom tomatoes here as a few people seem to have abosulutely no idea what they are.

    Heirloom (50 year old) tomatoes can either be actual 50 year old seeds OR seed varieties that have been preserved over the years by non hybridization, pesticides, genetic changes etc etc. They ARE delicious, and colorful.
    Much more flavorful than regular grocery variety, generally I find them to be sweeter, tarter, less watery tasting. If you aren’t a big tomato fan, I suggest you try a bite of heirloom – it’s like the difference between box/jug and good wine (or Schlitz and Bells Oberon beer).

  27. mac-phisto says:

    @gamble: lol…they do that here in new england all the time. after awhile, it’s easy as a local to discern which vendors sell local produce & which are just selling lots they picked up at a regional produce auction. unfortunately, the tourists flood the stands selling fake local produce b/c they almost always have the best locations.

  28. mermaidshoes says:

    @asynja – i think that distinction is more or less obsolete.

    Main Entry: healthy

    1 : enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit : WELL
    2 : evincing health a healthy complexion
    3 : conducive to health walk three miles every day…a beastly bore, but healthy — G. S. Patton
    4 a : PROSPEROUS, FLOURISHING b : not small or feeble : CONSIDERABLE

    Main Entry: health·ful

    1 : beneficial to health of body or mind
    2 : HEALTHY he felt incapable of looking into the girl’s pretty, healthful face — Saul Bellow

    also, i found this part of the study super interesting:

    “Fortunately, too, if real declines [in nutrient content] have occurred, there is a simple, known remedy easily available, at least to those in the developed world. That remedy is for consumers to eat somewhat less of the three major staples that we know have suffered much larger and broader nutrient losses than those suggested by Mayer’s and our findings. Refined sugars, separated fats and oils and white flour and rice have all suffered losses much greater and broader than the potential losses suggested here for garden crops [7]. American diets on average derive well over half of their calories and dry weight from these three staples [39]. Therefore, most diets in developed countries are nutritionally compromised much more by heavy consumption of these staples than they would be by any real losses like those potentially suggested here.

    “Thus, for those concerned about nutrient losses, the most important measure is to partly replace these known-depleted staples with more nutrient-dense whole foods, especially vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and beans. This remedy is similar to dietary changes already widely recommended in developed countries [40-42]. Plant cells require most human nutrients for their own functioning. They cannot grow, much less be viable commercial food crops, without synthesizing or acquiring their own needed levels of a broad range of nutrients. Thus, no whole plant food can be as broadly depleted of nutrients as are refined sugars and separated fats and oils.

    Currently available vegetables and fruits are still our most broadly nutrient-dense foods, and hundreds of studies document their superior health-promoting qualities [43-52]. If modern vegetables, whole grains and other nutrient-dense foods do provide sometimes less nutrition than they have in decades past, and we can learn to improve them in practical ways, so much the better they will be.”

    so the real news (to me, at least–maybe i’m just out of the loop when it comes to nutrition news) is not just that our veggies are less nutritious, but that the nutritional value of our main staples has declined even more significantly. yikes.

    also, you can search for food content yourself and do your own “studies”! neato. [www.nal.usda.gov]

    there’s even a ground beef calculator! just what i needed:

    [www.nal.usda.gov]

    there goes my productivity for the day…

  29. nardo218 says:

    Whenever I grow tomatoes, the groundhog under the shed steals them green.

  30. synergy says:

    @flyover: I don’t know about tomatoes, but I know that in corn isolated from modern genetic varieties have been tested and even they contain modified genes they shouldn’t have. I’m wondering if a tomatoe line can be kept pure or if it would also fall by in-roads from random exposure to modified genes.

  31. Trai_Dep says:

    That’s *totally* why I buy my sensemilla from the hydroponic guy down the street.

  32. Winca says:

    @nardo218: I suggest a high-powered rifle with an infrared scope.

    Or, Bill Murray (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day)

  33. anatak says:

    commercially grown fruits and veggies have nothing to do with flavor. “Can they survive the trip from farm to market and still look edible?” “How can I get more yield per acre?” “Why does my produce taste like crap?” never enters into their minds.

    Look up what commercial farms are doing to milk and eggs too. It’ll turn your stomach.