Nutrient-dense vegetables: appearances may be deceptive

After a heated #groundchat roundtable discussion last week about the connection between soil and nutrient-dense food — based on Monica Nickelsburg article’s Peak soil: Why nutrition is disappearing from our food — I have come to several conclusions.


Growing nutrient-dense vegetables

  • First, people like their food and most people are attached to their way of growing.
  • Second, most people agree that most soils are nutrient deficient, but not how to correct the problem.
  • Third, appearances can be deceptive. Just because fruit and vegetables look healthy and attractive doesn’t mean it is nutrient-dense food.


It is alarming to think that our food — fruit, vegetables, grains and meat — have been losing their nutritional punch.  The loss of nutrients in our produce has reduced our protection against prevalent diseases – cancer, cardiovascular disease Alzheimer’s and diabetes. And according to Steve Solomon and Erica Reinheimer’s The Intelligent Gardener, Growing Nutrient-Dense Food, depleted soil is the culprit.


NASA’s nutrient map supports this claim. Many of our world soils are mineral deficient, caused by leaching (in high rainfall areas), intense farming/gardening combined with insufficient repletion of the soil. Most agricultural colleges already teach about depleted minerals in soils.

What shocked most people on #groundchat was finding out that adding compost/manure isn’t enough. But it makes sense once you think about it. Compost made from plant material grown in nutrient-deficient soil would not accumulate the minerals that the soil needs. Simple.

However, some growers disagreed on the best method of remineralization.  A few people objected to Steve Solomon’s method of remineralization. Soil testing followed by remediation with rock phosphate, fishmeal kelp meal and lime was either too complicated or ineffective for some.

Other methods remineralization methods that were suggested included biochar, mineral-retrieval by growing long-rooted plants and using electricity to reduce mineral leaching.

But even if we replenish the soil with the right balance of minerals and pH, it might not be enough. We may get enough minerals from our food, but not enough phytonutrients. Many of the vegetables and fruit that we are growing are low in protective phytonutrients. Jo Robinson’s New York Times article, Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food, clearly illustrates that our current food has had phytonutrients bred right over them in the last 10,000 years.

What a poke in eye! How did this happen?   Well, food high in phytonutrients  (i.e. anthocyanin and beta-carotene) tends to taste bitter, astringent or sour.  So, we as a species have over the years selected fruits and vegetables lower in these beneficial phytonutrients. Wild dandelion has 7 times more phytonutrients than our cultivated spinach. The old Sikkim crabapple species has 100 times more phytonutrients than our beloved Golden Delicious.  And the list goes on. Check out the New York TimesNutritional Weaklings in the Supermarket.

And we have also selected varieties that were relatively low in fiber, and high in sugar, starch and oil.  Well, sugar and fat taste better don’t they? I am looking at my vegetable choices at President’s Choice and Stokes Seeds taste testing with a jaundiced eye now. Ha!

So what can we do? I can’t tell you what you should do, but I can tell you what I am doing.

  • I am getting a soil test and then remineralizing my vegetable patch.
  • I am also going to grow veggies that have had less breeding selection done, i.e. arugula and herbs.
  • And yes, I am  reading Jo Robinson’s blog, Eat Wild and buying her book, Eating on the Wild Side.


I have nothing to lose but my health.

Additional information

Erica’s Reinheimer’s website: Grow Abundant Gardens

Steve Solomon’s home page and his Soil and Health Library

Michael Astera’s The Ideal Soil. A Handbook for the New Agriculture.
This is the book that got Steve Solomon started with soil and nutrient-dense food.

Soil Analyst Cooperative. People helping people grow nutrient dense foods
Helps you find a soil analyst in your area. And lots more information on soils and growing nutrient-dense food.




Written by Cristina da Silva
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 in Plants & Soils

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  1. The above article has numerous incorrect statements. To name a few……

    “most people agree that most soils are nutrient deficient” – this may be true of agricultural land but it is not true of home gardens. In fact most have too many nutrients as a result of over fertilizing.

    “Compost made from plant material grown in nutrient-deficient soil would not accumulate the minerals that the soil needs” shows a misunderstanding of how plants grow. Firstly they don’t ‘accumulate minerals’–they absorb them and use them to build larger molecules. Secondly, if a nutrient is deficient, plants just don’t grow. If they can’t get any P they don’t grow.

    “we as a species have over the years selected fruits and vegetables lower in these beneficial phytonutrients” is not correct. Plants need these phtonutrients in order to live and grow–so they make them. Even if a new variety of vegetable is lower in these they still contain lots for our diet.

    • Thank you, Robert for your comments. I will do my best to clarify my statements.

      You are right, most home gardeners do tend to over-fertilze … with N, P and K. But not with Ca or Mg. So the soil still may be deficient in certain nutrients even in home gardens. The best thing to do is to test your soil for all the nutrients (not just N, P and K). Make no assumptions.

      Yes, minerals are absorbed by the roots. The minerals are then actively taken across the cell membrane in the root (requires ATP and a transporter protein), and transported in the xylem stream to the leaves where they are used to build larger molecules. The minerals are subsequently stored in the leaves and stems as the minerals or in other metabolized products. (apologies for getting technical … Plant Physiology was my MSc major 😉

      When plants decompose, they release the primary blocks of material they used when they built up the larger molecules. So, minerals are released back into the soil. Check out this Science study: science paper.

      Soils may have insufficient quantities of a mineral, which would allow the plant to grow, but not well. A good example of this are the watershed woodlands in New Hampshire USA. The acid And I quote: “It is generally accepted that acid rain harms trees, but the value of our study is that it proves the causal link between the chronic loss of soil calcium caused by decades of acid rain and its impact on tree growth.”

      Scientists added calcium back to the soil and monitored the effect over a fifteen year period. The effects on tree growth was astounding. “The researchers reported that trees in the calcium-treated watershed produced 21 percent more wood and 11 percent more leaves than their counterparts in an adjacent control site.”

      Many plant phytonutrients are secondary metabolites. They are not primary metabolites that plants need in order to live and grow. The main phytonutrients are flavonoids, 15-carbon compounds generally distributed throughout the plant kingdom. The main flavonoids are anthocyanins, flavonols and flavone: which colour flowers, leaves and berries. According to Salisbury and Ross’ Plant Physiology “Possible functions of anthocyanins have been considered ever since their discovery. One of their useful functions in flowers is attraction of birds and bees that carry pollen from one plant to another, thus aiding pollination.”

      So, you can have successfully growing plant that are low in certain phytonutrients.

      My source for the general comment that vegetables have become lower in phytonutrients is from Jo Robinson’s book, Eating on the Wild Side. She bases her comments on research. This is a really good read. I highly recommend it.

      Thank you for your comments, Robert. I really appreciate it. I hope you got something from my reply.

      • Ca and Mg are rarely deficient in garden soils. It is true garden soils may be deficient in certain nutrients, but unless a soil test has confirmed such a deficiency, it should be assumed there is no deficiency. Adding nutrients that are not required can be detrimental to plants and is environmentally irresponsible.

        How much lower were the phytonutrients?

        • I recommend that you read Steve Solomon’s The Intelligent Gardener, who he co-wrote with Erica Reinheimer, a soil analyst. The book has detailed soil analysis of many soils throughout the world. Many of the soils were Ca and/or Mg deficient. For example in the Northeast USA and Eastern Canada, acid rain has leached calcium from the soil (see my reference below on the New Hampshire watersheds study).

          I agree with you, test your soil first. Never add fertilizers/amendments without a soil test to establish a baseline. Make no assumptions.

          Phytonutrients in most of our produce today are significantly lower. Jo Robinson wrote a fantastic New York Times article on this subject, Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food. Again, I recommend that you read her throughly researched book, Eating on the Wild Side.

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