[permaculture] [SANET-MG] Achieving High Nutrient Levels in Crops

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Sat Oct 27 16:22:04 EDT 2012

LL et al,

Thanks for re-posting this. Getting nutrient-rich food is a challenge, as Michael writes, because 1) soil mineral content is hard to assess without testing; 2) we then need to test to see if those minerals are getting into our plants and 3) vegetables are generally not bred for maximum nutrient content, so it's hard to know which varieties are nutrient-rich. So, to get around these challenges, in addition to adding rock dusts, etc. to soils to up the mineral content, I've been recently converted to the diet philosophies of MD's like Joel Fuhrman and John McDougall, who have written books about a nutrient-rich diet. Their basic idea--and, duh, it was a lightbulb going off for me--is to eat large proportions of foods that have high nutrient to calorie ratios. That way, even if many vegetables don't have the highest nutrient content possible, you will still get plenty of nutrients (by nutrients, I mean minerals, amino acids, vitamins and co-factors, not calories from energy-rich carbon compounds). 

A huge proportion of the calories in typical diets--even health-conscious vegetarians--comes from low-nutrient foods like grains, dairy, oils, and fats. Those MDs have helped me understand that even supposedly healthy olive oil is complete junk food: tons of calories, no nutrients. Vegetables (meaning green and other colored plants, not grains and starches) have very few calories and lots of nutrients per 100 grams, while starches, oils, dairy, and meats have tons of calories but very few nutrients per 100 grams. So even modest amounts of  low-nutrient food will fill us up, because it's calories that give you that full feeling. And that makes it hard to get large amounts of nutrients. Even "healthy" eaters have high cholesterol and blood pressure from their low-nutrient diets. 

But these MDs say we should look at foods based on nutrients per calorie, not nutrients per weight, so we can get lots of nutrients without gaining weight or getting that "oh, I can tell I just ate" full feeling that most of us think is normal after meals--which is not how a nutrient-rich meal will make you feel, I've finally learned. Some numbers:

Nutrient per 100 calories	Broccoli     Steak    Romaine Lettuce
Protein                                    11g              6g            7g
Calcium                                   118mg      2mg         194mg
Potassium                              507mg       74mg       1453mg

and so on for all the minerals--meat is far less nutrient dense, and many veggies have more protein per calorie than meat. Grains are also fairly high in calories compared to nutrients, but much better than meat and dairy. And, what I didn't know before, is that we've been told vegetables don't have enough protein, but mother's milk is only 5% protein by weight, so if a fast-growing baby only  needs that little protein, an adult surely doesn't need more. We get far more protein than we need.  

So what these guys are saying is, eat huge quantities of colored veggies --a pound of kale is only about 100 calories--and then have a vegetable starch to fill up if you need to, and steer clear of oils, fats, sugars, and other totally empty foods. A diet in which most calories come from meat, dairy, oils, and even grains, has almost no chance of getting you enough nutrients. They also show conclusively that any more than 8oz or so of meat per week staggeringly increases the risk of all sorts of disease, which, being a confirmed carnivore, I don't like to see, but the facts are there in huge studies with good data.                                    		
I don't know how well I'm communicating this--it seems more radical to me than this may look. There is a clinic near me in Santa Rosa where the MDs use this diet to treat live-in patients, and people show huge drops in obesity, diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol, and get off lifetime meds they took for those problems.

I can't do this justice here, but for more, there is
http://www.drfuhrman.com and his book "Eat to Live" which I highly recommend
and True North Health Center in Santa Rosa, CA at

This seems a good strategy to get good nutrition until we get good data on nutrient-rich plant varieties. 

Been doing this diet, with gusto, for two months, so it's written with the zealousness of a convert--


On Oct 27, 2012, at 2:04 AM, Lawrence F. London, Jr. wrote:

> -------- Original Message --------
> Subject: Re: [SANET-MG] Achieving High Nutrient Levels in Crops (was 
> History of Organic Agriculture slide presentation)
> Date: Fri, 26 Oct 2012 02:02:39 -0400
> From: Michael Astera <michael.astera at GMAIL.COM>
> Heide and all-
> The subject of minerals in organic agriculture is relevant to the
> present controversy about nutritional content of mainstream vs organic
> food crops.  If we can't readily (and convincingly) show a significant
> nutritional difference between chemically and organically grown food,
> perhaps it's because there isn't one.  Perhaps there isn't much
> difference because both are being grown in less than ideal, mineral
> deficient, more or less imbalanced soils, while the varieties being
> grown lack the ability to utilize the full spectrum of nutrients or
> transform them into superior quality food even if everything were
> available and in balance.
> Figuring out how to achieve high nutrient levels in crops has been my
> goal for the last dozen years.  Finding a way to test for nutrients at
> a reasonable cost, and finding data to compare test results with, have
> been a necessary part of the search. For now, I’m using the standard
> ag lab plant tissue tests, because for $50 I can get results for 10
> minerals plus protein N, and can compare the results directly with the
> numbers in the older literature.
> Our older nutrient data collections are based on  minerals, fats,
> carbs, and protein. The USDA's first real attempt in 1940 was
> "Proximate Composition of American Food Materials", compiled by
> Charlotte Chatfield and Georgian Adams. It is a small (6 x9), 92 page
> circular that lists values for water, protein, fat, ash,
> carbohydrates, and calories. It wasn't until the late 1940s and early
> 1950s that the USDA nutrient data started to include a few minerals,
> and not until the 1960s did the data begin to include 10 or so
> minerals and some vitamins. There are a few pre-1940 tables showing
> mineral content of foods, mostly from the UK.
> The tables I use for comparison today are from the USDA National
> Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
> http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=8964.  How many years
> of data are averaged into that database is a good question, but one
> can at least tell how their sample compares to USDA averages.
> The numbers and percentages for minerals in the latest USDA database
> are, perhaps surprisingly, not easy to equal or exceed with average
> organic produce. I encourage anyone who thinks they are growing
> nutrient dense crops to have them tested and see how they compare with
> the USDA numbers.
> Many would be happy to know that their food contained the same amount
> of minerals that food grown fifty years ago did, and mineral content
> is where most of the past research papers on declining nutrient
> content of food have put their emphasis. Testing for mineral content
> is the least expensive and most accessible way I know of to measure
> and compare nutritional value, for now.
> Heidi H. wrote: "how do we intentionally produce plants with optimal
> nutrient content? Simply adding the "missing" nutrients to the soil
> doesn't necessary produce the result we are looking for, soil is way
> too complex for that."
> I agree that adding nutrients to the soil doesn't necessarily produce
> plants with optimal nutrient content (more on that below); but
> bringing the soil's mineral fertility into balance so that the optimum
> amount of nutrients are in the soil and available to the crops is not
> too complex or difficult.  The method shown in "The Ideal Soil", based
> on the Albrecht ratios but conforming to USDA NOP Organic rules, has
> been successfully applied around the world over the past four years,
> in all climates.  If we know the present mineral balance and CEC of
> the soil, moving it in any desired direction is relatively
> straightforward and predictable, especially in neutral or acid pH
> soils. A lab test will tell us how close the sample is to a given
> “ideal” and we can calculate what needs to be added to get there.
> All that to say, we do have a reference point for "ideal" soil mineral
> balance that has been shown to work, and a way to get there that
> anyone can use.  Application is simple, the results are predictable,
> and generally the minerals can be brought into any desired balance
> within a year or two.
> A bigger hurdle to growing nutritionally excellent food is that our
> crops have not been bred to uptake minerals nor provide optimal
> nutritional value.  They have been bred and selected for appearance,
> disease resistance, uniform maturity, size, yield, and shipping,
> handling, and storage qualities.  Like fresh flowers, our produce has
> been bred to still look pretty when it gets in front of the consumer,
> while our broadacre field and row crops have been bred for uniformity
> and maximum yield for lowest input cost.
> No matter how biologically active, mineral abundant, and fertile a
> soil is, if the plant doesn't have the ability to uptake the raw
> materials or use them to fabricate the nutrients we desire, it can’t
> and it won't. We need crops that have been bred specifically for the
> ability to produce nutritionally superior foods.
> It wouldn’t be difficult to select for and grow crops with the
> emphasis on nutrition and flavor along with appearance, yield, and
> other qualities we have already shown we can achieve. They would
> likely need to be grown in fully mineralized, biologically active
> soils so the plants have all of the needed elements to reach their
> full genetic potential, but we know how to create that soil.
> Once someone can show, unequivocally, that the food they grow or sell
> has significantly higher nutrient levels than what others are
> growing....the whole game changes.  A few organic producers entering
> the market with crops of proven superior nutrient content will set the
> bar higher for all.
> Michael Astera
> http://soilminerals.com
> (PS: I’m not an advocate of regularly foliar feeding nutrients to
> crops or applying minerals in soluble form via irrigation, except in
> alkaline or calcareous soils where elements such as Iron quickly tie
> up in insoluble forms and become unavailable.)

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