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Supplement Proponents’ Claims
By Gary F. Zeolla
This four-part article is continued from Supplement Proponents’ Claims: Part One.
Loss of Nutrients in Storage
The next claim as to why you need to take supplements is that nutrients are lost in storage. It is said, with our current food production system, foods are often transported large distances and sit on grocery store shelves for long periods of times. As a result, by the time you consume a food, it has lost most of its nutrient content. As a result, you need to take a supplement to make up for this loss of nutrients.
The first part of this claim is true. There is a loss of nutrients during storage. And the longer the storage time, the greater the nutrient loses. But there are many factors that affect how severe the loss is:
Changes in nutrient composition from harvest to consumption depend to a certain degree on the particular nutrient, the commodity, and the postharvest handling, storage, and home cooking conditions….
Vitamin C losses in vegetables stored at 4°C [degrees Celsius = 39 degrees Fahrenheit] for 7 days range from 15% for green peas to 77% for green beans. Refrigeration slows deterioration of vitamin C, as demonstrated in the case of broccoli, where losses after 7 days of storage were 0 at 0°C [32°F] but 56% at 20°C [68°F]. It should be noted, however, that 20°C storage of broccoli for 7 days is atypical and would result in a wilted, yellowed product that would in all likelihood not be consumed…. (Maximizing).
The researchers found that spinach stored in a refrigerator at 39 degrees [Fahrenheit] retained more nutrients than spinach kept at warmer temperatures. While they found that substantial nutrient-loss occurred at all storage temperatures, the cooler temperatures retained more nutrients for a longer period of time (Penn State).
The point of these quotes and others that could be presented is steps can be taken to reduce the loss of nutrients. The first is time. The closer a commodity is grown to where you attain it, the less nutrient loss there will be due to transportation time. This is one of the major reasons for home gardening. You cannot get any fresher than going into your own backyard, picking a vegetable, bringing it inside, and eating it. I know my dad has bragged many times about this very thing when eating his dinner salad, “I just picked this lettuce this morning. You can’t get any fresher than that.”
But for those who do not grow a home garden, the next best option would be to shop farmers’ markets. With them, you will be buying locally grown produce that was probably harvested shortly before being brought to the market. Next would be to purchase local produce at a grocery store. At the food co-op that I shop, they regularly have signs indicating which produce is locally grown.
As soon as vegetables are picked, their nutrient clock begins to tick away. The more time it spends off the plant, the more vitamins will be lost.
For this reason, seeking out local produce when possible is never a bad idea — the less time it takes for the veggies to get to your plate, the more nutrients they’ll retain. Support local agriculture in your community or get your hands dirty by planting some of your own herbs and vegetables – you can’t get more local than that (Food Network).
While all of the factors affecting nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables – crop variety, production method, post-harvest handling, storage, and processing and packaging – apply equally to produce that is produced locally or on farms across the country, relying on local sources for your produce needs has some distinct advantages.
First, even when the highest post-harvest handling standards are met, foods grown far away that spend significant time on the road, and therefore have more time to loss nutrients before reaching the marketplace.
Second, farmers growing for a local (and especially a direct) market favor taste, nutrition and diversity over shipability when choosing varieties. Greater crop diversity from the farmer means greater nutritional diversity for the eater.
Third, in direct and local marketing strategies, produce is usually sold within 24 hours after harvest, at its peak freshness and ripeness, making consuming them a more attractive prospect.
Fourth, during this short time and distance, produce is likely handled by fewer people, decreasing potential for damage, and typically not harvested with industrial machinery. Minimizing transportation and processing can ensure maximum freshness and flavor, and nutrient retention.
This may seem like an overly simplistic explanation of why local fruits and vegetables are more healthful than those from our conventional long-haul agricultural system (Is Local).
Consequently, buying local when possible is worthwhile. Then when you bring the produce into your home, put it into the refrigerator. That will greatly reduce nutrient loses. And try not to over-purchase produce. Ideally, it should be used within a week of purchase.
Once you get those fresh vegetables home, minimize additional nutrient loss by eating them right away or storing in the refrigerator or freezer. Cold temperatures will limit the degradation of vitamins, so use the vegetable drawer in your fridge (where humidity is higher) and store in an air-tight bag or container. Avoid trimming and chopping prior to storage too, this will limit surface area and help lock more of the vitamins inside (Food Network).
Of course, these recommendations would mainly apply to the growing season for those of use in northern climates. During winter months, home gardens and locally grown produce is not really an option. But that is where canned and frozen produce is very helpful. There is some loss of nutrients in the canning process, but then that is it. The nutrients will remain rather stable after that. But even better is frozen produce. Produce is usually frozen very close to the harvest site. And once it is frozen, there is little loss of nutrients for quite some time. As such, in many casess, frozen produce can be even more nutritious than fresh produce.
There are thus may steps that can be taken to render this claim not that meaningful. Moreover, even if the produce you are eating has been transported a long distance, you are still far better off than most people were a century or longer ago. Back then, eating fruit and vegetables in the winter was almost never possible.
I can remember my grandpa say how great of a treat it was when as a kid back in the early 1900s, he got an orange in his Christmas stocking. The point being, he’d go the whole winter with no fresh fruit. And frozen produce was unheard of, while canning was only invented in 1810 (Kitchen). Before that, most people in colder climates never ate any produce in the winter months.
This point was emphasized in a Christmas movie I watched when I was working on this section. It was titled Christmas Oranges. It was about an orphanage in the early 1900s. Each Christmas, the brother of the headmaster of the orphanage would hang one orange for each of the children on the Christmas tree. That would be the only present the kids would get. But they greatly looked forward to that orange, as it was such a special treat.
One girl named Rose was particularly anxious for her orange, as she had never eaten one. It was worth watching the movie just to see her face light up when she sees the box of oranges before they were hung on the tree, and then again, after much ado, when she finally gets to bite into hers.
The point is, we often forget how blessed we are today to be able to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. But since we do, why would you want to get your vitamin C from a pill when you can get it from a delicious and succulent orange?
But supplement proponents don’t want to tell you any of this. They would prefer you forget about how blessed you are to have fresh produce year-round. They instead what to make you think the produce you consume is nutritionally worthless and that you are far worse off than your ancestors, so that you will buy their supplements. But taking a pill will never be better than eating real produce, taste-wise or nutrition-wise, no matter how much supplement proponents try to push the idea.
Loss of Nutrients in Cooking
Supplement proponents claim cooking produce causes it to lose most all of its nutrients. As a result,. you thus need to take supplements to make up for this loss.
The first part of this claim is an exaggeration. There is some loss of some nutrients in cooking, especially of the water-soluble vitamins like Vitamin C. But that loss can be minimized by the proper cooking methods. Boiling is the worst method, unless the cooking water is consumed, such as in soup or broth. Then most of the nutrients will be consumed. But if not, then steaming or microwaving are far better and cause minimal nutrient losses.
But some nutrients are not lost at all; and in some cases, nutrients are better absorbed after cooking, such as the lycopene in tomatoes. Moreover, “Cooking food improves digestion and increases absorption of many nutrients” (Authority Nutrition; How). But most of all, most fruits and many vegetables are commonly consumed raw, like lettuce. In those cases, the claim is irrelevant.
Altogether, supplement proponents are making a much bigger deal of this issue than it really is.
Loss of Nutrients in Processing
Supplement proponents will claim that there is much loss of nutrients when foods are processed, and the more foods are processed, the greater the nutrient loss. As a result, for example, white bread is far less nutritious than whole grain bread, French fries or tater tots than a baked potato, cold cereal than oatmeal. Moreover, some processed foods are completely devoid of nutrients, such as soft drinks and gelatin desert. Since most American’s diet are composed on such foods, we need to take supplements.
This claim is true; but the conclusion is not. In many cases, there is a significant loss of nutrients when foods are processed. And the more they are processed, the greater the loss. And some foods are nutritionally worthless. And most of all, yes, many Americans eat a largely processed food diet.
However, the answer to this problem is not to takes pills and powders. The answer is for Americans to change their diets and eat more whole, natural foods. That is what should be encouraged to turn the poor health status of Americans around, not the taking of supplements.
Breeding of Plants
The claim here is that through centuries of breeding of plants, today’s fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods are not as nutritious as in times past. This time, the supplement proponents are kind of correct. But it is not that today’s fruits and vegetables have fewer vitamins and minerals that ancient plants. What has happened is that phytonutrient (or phytochemical) content is lower.
Plant foods contain thousands of natural chemicals. These are called phytonutrients or phytochemicals. “Phyto” refers to the Greek word for plant. These chemicals help protect plants from germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats…
Phytonutrients aren’t essential for keeping you alive, unlike the vitamins and minerals that plant foods contain. But when you eat or drink phytonutrients, they may help prevent disease and keep your body working properly (WebMD).
Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers…
Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health (New York Times; Breeding).
Thus, there is a difference between modern-day plant foods and ancient plants. Since the plants are being protected from normal environmental adverse conditions as best as each generation of humans has been able to do, they do not need to produce phytochemicals to protect themselves. And when breeding plants, farmers choose the tastiest ones to breed or which are beneficial to the farmer and food production system otherwise, which are not necessary the ones that are the most nutritious.
To understand what is meant here, I will go back to my dad’s garden. During the winter, the only tomatoes that are available in my area (Pittsburgh, PA) are the plastic-like ones in the grocery stores. Such breeds of tomatoes have been bred to be firm so as to withstand shipping without being damaged. But they have little taste and juiciness to them. But then each summer when my dad first gives me a tomato from his garden, as soon as I hold it, I can tell the difference. It does not feel plastic, but it is soft to the touch. Then when I cut into it, juices pour out onto the cutting board. And the taste is far superior.
This illustration leads to one way to evade this problem: consume breeds of plants that are more like their wild counterparts than ones that are less like them. This can be hard to do, but some of the recommendations already made would be steps in that direction. First, is to grow a garden, and the second is to purchase from local farmers. Both home gardeners and small local farmers tend to use less bred breeds of plants than large-scale farms. This can be seen again in that tomatoes from local farmers are far juicier than ones from a standard grocery store. The third step is a bit more controversial and will require its own section in a moment.
But first, these steps would be better than thinking that supplements will make up for this lack. This is especially true as supplements generally do not contain these phytochemicals, or if they do, they are in amounts that are far less amounts or are far different than would be found in any plant foods, regardless of how bred the plants are.
As scientists discover more and more valuable health benefits of phytochemicals, supplement manufacturers race to put them in pill form and offer them for sale. But phytochemicals removed from the plant foods where they originated don’t seem to work as well as eating the whole food (Livestrong; Why).
The reason for this difference is phytochemicals exist in a wide variety of forms or types within the same plant, which is almost impossible to reproduce in pill form. In fact, supplements generally only contain the ones that have been researched, which is far fewer than the total number of them. Second, the synergy between these different forms is vital to their health benefits. Third, it is difficult and expensive to isolate these phytochemicals into pill form. All these points together mean you’d pay a lot of money for phytochemical supplements, which are unlikely to be beneficial anyway.
The third step to attain more phytochemicals in your plant foods is controversial. It is to buy organic rather than conventional plant foods. This is controversial, as the evidence for the difference between organic and conventional plant foods is mixed, especially in regard to the nutritional content of food.
Some studies show that organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic foods. If this is the case, then a better use of one’s money would be to purchase organic foods rather than to buy supplements. That would give the reader the most bang for your buck in terms of nutrition. As already hinted at, nutrients and phytochemicals exist in a synergistic fashion in whole foods that is impossible to reproduce in pills and powders.
But why is it difficult to determine if organic plant foods more nutritious? The answer to this question takes us back to Part One and the discussion on spoil depletion and the difficulty of comparing food composition tables from the 50s to today—there are many factors that affect the nutritional content of foods, such as location, the weather, time of year, amount of sunlight, degree of ripeness, and other confounding factors.
That is why a Google search will turn one article titled “Organic Foods Contain Higher Levels of Certain Nutrients” (Environmental Nutrition), while another is titled, “Organic food no more nutritious than conventionally grown food” (Harvard). But it is worth noting that none of these studies have found that organic produce contains less nutrients than conventional produce. The studies either find no difference or that organic produce is slightly higher in vitamins and minerals.
That said, let’s ignore these debates for a moment and think through this logically. Going back to the discussion on soil depletion, both organic and conventional farmers utilize fertilizer; the organic farmers uses manure, while the conventional farmer uses chemicals. Both restore minerals to the soil. As discussed, if this is not done, crop volume will diminish over time. As such, it benefits both types of farmers to utilize fertilizer that will optimally restore minerals to the soil, so the two types of crops, conventional and organic, should have similar mineral levels. Differences would be due to the differences between the conscientiousness of the particular farmer more so than due to the type of fertilizer used. Vitamin content then is mostly part and parcel of the growth of the plant. Thus, the levels of non-antioxidant vitamins, like the B complex, would be similar, assuming both types of plants are grown in similar manners.
However, where there is a significant difference between a conventional and an organic farmer is in the use of pesticides, fungicides, and the like. A conventional famer uses chemical pesticides and fungicides, which are very effective. But an organic farmer uses natural methods that are not quite as effective.
Conventional growers use synthetic pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects and diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, this can leave residue on produce. Organic farmers use insect traps, careful crop selection (disease-resistant varieties), predator insects or beneficial microorganisms instead to control crop-damaging pests (Mayo).
The difference in effectiveness is why organic produce is more expensive than conventional produce. But there is a debate as to how much of a difference this is. But most studies find that the yields of organic farms are about 80% as much as that of conventional farms, though improved methodologies can raise this to as high as 87% (World Watch).
But whatever the exact difference, a conventionally grown plant does not need to protect itself as much from pests, fungus, and the like as an organic plant does. But a plant’s method for doing so is to create antioxidants, which include antioxidant vitamins, along with a variety of phytochemicals. It would thus seem logical that organic crops would contain greater amounts of the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, and phytochemicals.
Plants produce phytochemicals, which are like “natural pesticides” that stop plants being eaten by insects and other predators. When you spray plants with pesticides, as happens with non-organic produce, then the plants don't bother making their own phytochemicals (ABC Health).
This higher phytonutrient content is supported by the research:
Contrary to the recent paper, Brandt’s analysis found that organic produce tended to provide significantly more vitamin C and “secondary metabolites.” Secondary metabolites, or bioactive compounds that aren’t directly involved in the plant’s growth, maturation, or reproduction, include the antioxidant compounds – the polyphenols, the flavonoids, and all the other phytonutrients – that make fruits and vegetables so uniquely healthful and which the evidence suggests is the primary explanation for the association of produce consumption with increased health. Although these secondary metabolites provide health benefits to those who eat them, for the plants, they are self-defense mechanisms. And without copious amounts of conventional agricultural chemicals doing the protecting, plants grown organically must manufacture more of their own protective compounds to stay alive, particularly if they’re subjected to stressors (like physical trauma, at least in the case of sweet potatoes). This is good for us. It’s as if growing plants organically trains them to be better and more beneficial (Mark’s Daily Apple).
A 2010 study by Washington State University scientists found organic strawberries have more vitamin C and antioxidants than conventional strawberries. Organic tomatoes also have more of a type of antioxidant called polyphenols than commercially grown tomatoes, according to a study published in July by scientists at the University of Barcelona (New York Times; Organic Food).
All of this is to say, the way to solve the problem of the lack of phytonutrients in today’s food is not to take pills, which really do not solve the problem, but to spend that money instead on organic rather than conventional produce.
My Dad’s Apple Trees
Let me illustrate the preceding two points by again using my dad, but this time not his garden but his apple trees. He has two of them in his front yard. This year he had a bountiful harvest, with each tree yielding over a bushel of apples.
But these apples do not look at all like those you would find in a grocery store. They are mostly small, odd-shaped, and have black spots on them. And when he gives them to me, he always says to “Eat them with a knife.” By this he means that there might be bad spots and worms inside, so to cut them up as you eat them. I always do that, and there are often bad spots in them. But once I cut them out, they taste just fine, better in fact than what I get in a grocery store.
The reason his apples do not look as nice as grocery store apples is his two apple trees are a wilder variety than the ones that commercial apples grow on. And the black botches and bad spots are due to him not using pesticides and herbicides. But I would bet that if an analysis were to be done, his apples would have a greater phytonutrient content than commercial apples.
Part Three of this four-part article will be posted on this website after it appears in the next issue of FitTips for One and All.
General (for all four parts):
All Scripture references are from: Analytical-Literal Translation of the Bible (ALT). Copyright © 1999-2019 by Gary F. Zeolla (www.Zeolla.org). Bolding added for emphasis.
9 News. Common nutrition myths.
Authority Nutrition: 7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common.
Ben Greenfield Fitness. 5 Reasons To Take Nutritional Supplements.
Bulletproof. Why Getting Your Nutrition Only from Food is A Bad Idea.
Care2. 10 Reasons to Take Nutritional Supplements.
Farmacopia. Dangers of Supplementation.
Hardvard Health. Getting your vitamins and minerals through diet.
Health.gov. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for America.
Huffington Post. Debunked! 7 Common Senior Nutrition Myths.
Parsonnet, Mia. M.D. What’s in Our Food? Madison books: New York, 1996.
PR Newswire. Nine Out of 10 Americans Fall Short of Key Nutrients They Need, New Study Concludes.
Stay Healthy and Well. Why Do We Need Supplements?
For Specific Sections in this Part Two:
ABC Health & Wellbeing: Does organic food contain more nutrients than non-organic food?
Authority Nutrition: How Cooking Affects The Nutrient Content of Foods.
Food Network: How to Prevent Vitamin Loss When Cooking Vegetables.
“Is Local More Nutritious?” It Depends.
Kitchen: How Canning Was Invented, and How It Changed the Way We Eat.
Livestrong: Why Are Phytochemicals Better Found in Food Than Supplements?
Mark’s Daily Apple: Is Organic a Scam? – Nutrient Differences.
Maximizing the Nutritional Value of Fruits & Vegetables.
Mayo Clinic. Organic food: Is it more nutritious?
New York Times: Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food.
Penn State: Storage time and temperature effects nutrients in spinach.
World Watch Institute. Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?
Supplement Proponents’ Claims: Part Two. Copyright © 2020 by Gary F. Zeolla.
The above article first appeared in the free
FitTips for One and All newsletter.
It was posted on this site February 9, 2020.
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