The Bad Diet of Healthy Food

The amount of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used to grow the developed world's food is resulting in crops that look big and beautiful on the outside but with lower levels of certain minerals and nutrients on the inside.

Etan Cohen and Mike Judge (creator of Beavis & Butt-Head, King of the Hill and my current favorite show, Silicon Valley) wrote the 2006 movie Idiocracy, which is about a man who wakes up in a future America and discovers that everyone, including those in charge, is an idiot. In February 2016, Etan tweeted, "I never expected #idiocracy to become a documentary." He was speaking about the similarities between the presidential election and Idiocracy's President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (played by Terry Crews.) But it turns out there is another unnerving similarity between the movie and the reality we are currently facing.

In the movie, the world is running out of food because the idiots in charge are using a sports drink called "Brawndo" to water the plants instead of, well, water. While today's society hasn't reached the level of stupidity and famine the society in the movie does, we do have a serious problem. According to this Nautilus article, the amount of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides we're using to grow our food is resulting in crops with lower levels of certain minerals and nutrients.

"Most of us are familiar with the much-maligned Western diet and its mainstay of processed food products found in the middle aisles of the grocery store," Nautilus writes opening the article. "Some of us beeline for the salty chips and others for the sugar-packed cereals. But we are not the only ones eating junk food. An awful lot of crops grown in the developed world eat a botanical version of this diet—main courses of conventional fertilizers with pesticide sides." Although I'm amused by the image in my head of a carrot sitting on a couch eating some Doritos, this is a very upsetting thesis.

"Agronomists who analyzed archived wheat samples collected from 1873 to 1995 found significant declines in iron and zinc," Nautilus reports. "A 2009 study of nutrient levels in United States crops concluded that there was strong evidence for 5 to 40 percent declines in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables over the previous 50 to 70 years." Well, that's upsetting. Even if I cut out all the junk food in my diet (and there is a lot,) the junk food my healthy food is eating means I'm still not getting the nutrients I need.

So how did this happen? Well, there are a lot of factors involved. Among them is the very American way of thinking of bigger is always better. "Picture a big russet potato next to a small fingerling potato, both grown in the same soil and containing the same total amount of iron," the article explains. "Thanks to modern breeding techniques, the larger russet can contain less iron per unit of biomass than the smaller fingerling, making the russet less nutrient-dense."

Another problem is the decline in phytochemical levels. Phytochemicals are the bioactive compounds that provide the health benefits that food can provide. In general, the closer a crop is to the original crop, i.e. the less modified the crop, the higher the phytochemical levels. Unfortunately, the more synthetic fertilizers we use, the lower the phytochemical levels, the lower the health benefits, the less happy I am. The crops look big and healthy on the outside, but on the inside, they're duds.

I don't know about you, but I don't want my french fries made of duds. Hopefully we can change this before Idiocracy really becomes a reality.