3 Major Factors Affecting Access To Nutrient Dense Foods:

Where have all the nutrients gone?

By: Farmer Greg + Leia Vita Farmer + Producer   
Read Time: 10 Minutes
There is nothing in the world like the taste of a local tomato plucked fresh off the vine.

But today, it’s becoming harder to have that experience as the shelves in most grocery stores and supply chains are flooded with perfectly stacked, impeccably round, conventionally grown tomatoes (did you know China is the largest grower of tomatoes?!). Looks can be deceiving. While immaculate in appearance, the flavor and vital nutrients that sustain our health are a fraction of what they should be in most of today’s produce. A tomato grown today has almost no lycopene (plant nutrient with antioxidant properties that give the red color) left in it, compared to one grown in the 1950s. Compared to 50-70 years ago, the food we consume today has significantly less vital nutrients.

Where have all the nutrients gone in the food we eat?
There are many complex answers to this question, but we’ve sliced it down to discuss three reasons people are not receiving as many nutrients today:
Unsustainable farming practices and high yield pressures
Lack of access to nutritious produce in a broken food system
Consumers valuing “perfect” looking produce, all year around


Before we dive in, let’s start with the basics of what nutrient density means. Nutrient density is a topic still to be defined, but essentially it measures the quality of food by calculating the minerals present (iron, magnesium, zinc, sulfur, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, etc.) in addition to the level of vitamins, antioxidants and polyphenols (micronutrients and organic compounds found in plants). Most of these nutrients are responsible for providing fruits and vegetables with their flavor and aroma. Even though the planet can produce enough food to feed the population, there are nearly 3 billion people suffering from nutrient deficiencies globally, 2 billion people who were food insecure in 2019, and 3 billion people who can’t afford the cheapest healthy diet. Source 1  Source 2



After World War II, the United States turned its excess petroleum into chemical fertilizers. Many farmers were convinced that these chemical fertilizers would save time, increase yields, and create healthier, greener plants. Yes, fertilizers contribute to quicker and bigger yields, so it’s easy for farmers to create a dependent relationship with them. When excess amounts of fertilizer are applied, the debate continues on what is compromised in regards to the health and nutrients of the plants and soil. Dr. Zach Bush states, “The plants were greener, but they weren’t healthier—they were now weak and lacking major nutrients. For the first time in history, farmers ignored the generational and indigenous wisdom of good crop practices. They stopped letting their soil rest, they stopped rotating their crops.”

For the first time in history, farmers ignored the generational and indigenous wisdom of good crop practices.

A combination of over-cultivation, overgrazing, excess tillage, and over use of NPK (nitrate, phosphate and potassium) fertilizers are some of the few common practices that are affecting the nutrients in the soil (note that even USDA Organic farmers can till and use organic chemical inputs). Source These practices destroy some of the beneficial microorganisms, symbiotic bacteria and fungi that supply nutrients to crops. If microorganisms are not present, the crop cannot realize it’s fullest nutritional potential. Additionally, critical enzyme systems within the plant roots that help mineral absorption become inactive with an excess of pesticides like organochlorine (OC) and organophosphorus (OP) Source With these farming practices, the land is treated like a factory focused on yields and output, rather than nutritional quality and flavor. High-yield crops burden the nutritional capacity of our soils, affecting their alkalinity or acidity. Source With an imbalanced soil-base, it’s as if the plants are on life support. According to Rodale Institute, there is roughly 60 years of topsoil left if we continue to use conventional practices.

Activist Winona LaDuke argues that the industrialized food system sacrifices nutritional value for efficiency, selecting for crops that produce high yields and resist diseases. The rising intensity of pressure to maintain high yields inhibits farmers from having the time, space and financial resources to try transitioning to regenerative practices – for the farmer, it’s a big risk. However, regenerative agriculture has the potential to offer a solution by incentivizing farmers with higher profit margins based on the nutrient density of their produce over yields. The ideal situation is for farmers to get a fair wage, while also making it affordable to everyone. With less costs for inputs, I believe there is a way nutrient dense, regeneratively grown produce can and should be more economically viable than conventionally grown food.



The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 39.4 million Americans live in communities where it is far easier to buy grape soda instead of a handful of grapes. Source In the United States, there are large nutritional disparities across different socioeconomic groups. “Lower-income families have access to fewer supermarkets and other healthy food retail outlets that provide a wide selection of affordable, nutritious foods.” Since many lower-income families don’t have cars or access to public transportation, the cost of travel and travel time to find healthier options is an additional out-of-pocket expense that may not be reasonable. Source 1  Source 2
Currently, a ‘healthy diet’ is, on average, 60% more expensive than a ‘nutrient adequate’ diet and five times the cost of an ‘energy sufficient’ diet, putting it far out of reach of many people living in poverty. Source
This broken food distribution system results in many communities not having access to nutrient rich produce.

In addition to lack of access and availability, lower income communities are saturated with heavy advertisements and marketing efforts directed toward fast foods and unhealthy snacks. “Outdoor ads (on benches, billboards, and storefronts) for unhealthy products of all types, including cigarettes and alcohol, are more likely to be in areas with a higher proportion of minorities and low-income individuals.” Source 1  Source 2  Unhealthy food is not merely the only physical option, but it’s often the most common narrative they’re being fed.

Karen Washington explains how…

Food apartheid looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics. You say food apartheid and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system.

For example, 276 tribes receive food from The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) that provides USDA foods to income-eligible households living on Indian reservations. Take a look at the 2021 list here. Other than a few frozen or dehydrated items, all fruits, vegetables, chicken, milk, and beef, are canned. Many canned fruits are loaded with sugary syrups, whereas excess sodium is the main concern in canned vegetables. There are too many people not having access or availability to healthy and fresh produce, whether they rely on a diet of canned foods from governmental food distribution programs, or simply don’t have transportation or income to afford fresh, nutrient rich produce.



In addition to food apartheids and farmers’ decisions around farming practices, consumers’ perception of fruits and vegetables are biased towards perfection. Just because a product looks “perfect” is not a reflection of its nutritional value. Food distributors know food that looks prettier, sells better. Annually, around 6 billion pounds of produce go unharvested or unsold due mainly to aesthetic reasons. Source Blemishes and mishappens do not affect quality or freshness. “It is our contention that food waste resulting from consumers avoiding or discarding misshapen produce….is the result of consumers having biased prototypes that situate beauty as the norm.” Source Farmers and processors are then pressured to alter their practices for the sake of aesthetics to keep produce looking fresher longer. Companies like Imperfect Foods are rescuing foods with cosmetic quirks or irregular sizes from sustainable farmers because they know this food has value, whether it’s re-purposed or eaten fresh.

Typically in more developed economies, the conventional and globalized systems have overpowered the local food systems, further distancing us from the seasonal and indigenous varieties of the very landscapes we live in. No matter what US-based supermarket chain, it’s expected to find food that has travelled thousands of miles; grapes from Chile, bananas from Ecuador, wheat and tomatoes from China, etc. Source Consider how time in transit and travel accommodations can impact vital nutrients compared to freshness of locally sourced foods. According to a study at Montclair State University, brocolli’s vitamin C content was cut in half when shipped out of the country compared to when it was locally sourced. Source

How can we avoid falling into the unconscious act of buying produce based on the prevailing cultural beliefs around perfection? And how can we catch ourselves from expecting to have produce like tomatoes or mangos all year around? If you have the privilege and opportunity, get to know your farmer so you can build a relationship and trust in their agricultural practices. This will also inform you on what foods are in season and which you should be eating based on availability. Beyond faith in the farmer, work on developing your flavor profiles and palates; you should be able to taste the difference. If you’ve tried a store bought tomato versus home-grown, you know the taste is incomparable.


Organizations like the Blue-Blanc Coeur in France, and the US-based Rodale Institute, Rhizoterra, and BioNutrient Food Association (BFA) have begun to analyze nutrients in the food we eat. This will provide transparency for healthy soils, plants, and animals, ensuring the end consumer is eating a superior product, in addition to providing farmers with best suggested practices.

In 2018, the BFA conducted their first study pulling from 648 samples of carrots from 50 unique stores and 48 farmers/gardeners. They found immense variation from one carrot to another; the antioxidant value of 1 carrot equated to the antioxidant value of 90 carrots grown elsewhere. That’s a 90:1 variation in the nutritional value of carrots (in terms of antioxidants)! For polyphenols, the variation was as high as 200:1; that means you would have to eat 200 carrots from one field to get the same nutrients out of one carrot grown elsewhere.

The goal of nutrient density transparency is to encourage agricultural practices that place nutritional quality at the heart of its concerns. Simultaneous with the unfolding scientific findings and home measuring systems (like the Brix meter or calorimeter), consumers can develop a palate for taste and a sensitivity to how certain foods make them feel. Beautiful flavors in produce coincide with high nutritional value. The same aspects of the plant that give it high nutrition, also give it the best flavors and aroma.


Imagine a world where all people have access to nutrient dense food.
Imagine a world where governmental food programs handout farm-fresh produce instead of canned goods.
Imagine a world where farmers prioritize nutrient quality over yields and aesthetic perfection.
Imagine a world where people aren’t suffering from food insecurity, food apartheids, and nutrient deficiencies.
Everyone has a right to fresh, nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. The more we study and understand the nutrient potential in foods, the more we can drive farming practices in the right direction. And if we test the nutrient density of food across the board- from gas stations, to food pantries, to Walmarts, to Whole Foods, backyard gardens, and farmer’s markets, we’ll have more transparency, which will hopefully propel a demand for change.
Although the science is still being tested and developed, as a farmer, I believe there is much potential in shifting the needle with the transparency of nutrient density testing. If farmers are compensated for nutritional value instead of yield, and food is grown and distributed where it is needed most, then we are on the right path for human health, for all.