Okay, now let’s talk growing for nutrition. In addition to taste, the vegetables, fruits and proteins you grow yourself have more nutrition than anything you can buy, especially if you select the right varieties, feed your soil, take good care of your plants, harvest just before you eat them and store them carefully. Plants are live foods. They don’t stop living once you pluck them from the stem, branch or ground. They continue to “breathe” – shuttling oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth through their skins – and the enzymatic processes also keep right on trucking. That’s why something such as lettuce wilts if not refrigerated, and why corn converts sugars to starch if you let it sit.
For maximum nutrition, minimize storage time. Lettuce needs a few hours to chill and get crisp, but harvest the rest of your salad ingredients just before dinner. The longer a vegetable sits, the more vitamins it loses. Cooking also destroys the heat-sensitive nutrients such as vitamin C; however, it concentrates others, such as lycopene. A quick stir-fry will spare more vitamins than boiling in water. However, boiling in water means many nutrients move into the cooking water, so a rich soup broth can be very nutritious. I like to save vegetable peelings and things like celery tops in the freezer; when I’m making soup broth, they form the base.
Is organic worth it? When it comes to food safety, what organic foods don’t have is the highly toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in conventional farming. Now, that does not mean organic foods have no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. They have “less toxic” versions. If you grow your own, however, you can eliminate all of them. The research on nutrient qualities when comparing organic versus conventional foods has shown mixed results, so many conventionally-trained doctors and dietitians will tell you there’s no clear advantage to eating organic produce, meat or dairy products. But – and it’s a huge but – there’s a real problem with that sort of research.
The best soil produces the best nutrition and building soil takes a while. This is why it’s so hard to compare the research results. There are too many variables and too little understanding of the tremendous complexity involved. To really compare the nutrition in something such as a tomato, for example, you need not just organically grown tomatoes, but tomatoes grown in soil that has been managed organically for many years, with crop rotations, humus, minerals, compost and such. The soil should be loaded with worms and microorganisms, full of humus and minerals. Plants grown under these conditions have more phytonutrients – plant compounds such as enzymes, polyphenols, antioxidants and bioflavonoids – as well as more vitamins and minerals.
Consider this scenario: Take a piece of ground that has been conventionally farmed for years, divide it in half and grow organic vegetables on one side and conventional vegetables on the other. Test the results for nutritive qualities. Second Scenario: Divide that same piece of ground and spend 10 or 20 years building soil fertility and tilth on one half using organic methods, planting cover crops, increasing humus, and encouraging beneficial insects and soil microbes. Now plant and test the results from each half. See the difference? That’s why the research has mixed results.
That same issue holds true in research on any kind of foodstuff. Research results from pasteurized milk cannot be extrapolated to raw milk. Research on raw milk from conventionally-raised and fed cows cannot be extrapolated to raw milk from grass-fed cows. Here’s another example: In most dairies, calves are removed from their mothers immediately after birth. They may be fed colostrum – the first milk a mammal produces after birth, which is loaded with antibodies and other important substances for the baby – for a few days. After that, many are fed milk replacer (think baby formula for cows) in a bottle or bucket. Cows are ruminants, and they get their gut microbes, which they need to digest their food, from their mamas. Many people may know that cows chew their cud, but what they might not know is that unlike humans – who chew their food, store it in the stomach for a while and then get most of the actual digestion done in the intestines – cows do most of the digesting in the four chambers of their stomachs. A nursing calf is populating her gut. If she drinks milk from a bucket the microbes often go into the wrong stomach chamber, and she will not be as healthy as a calf raised naturally and allowed to suckle from Mom. If she gets milk replacer, the problem is even worse, because – like human baby formula – milk replacer just isn’t the same in terms of quality as the real thing. I’m willing to bet that (all other things being equal) if you took raw milk from dairy cows separated from their mothers at birth and fed milk replacer, and compared it to raw milk from dairy cows raised naturally, the latter would have more nutrition.