Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Broadening Organic: Nutrient Dense Foods

Written January 4, 2013, published in mid January 2013. All photos by Kathleen Sayce.

The debate about organic versus convention food production goes back and forth. One study says organically grown food is healthier. Another says there is no difference in nutritional value between organically- and conventionally-grown foods, except for the level of pesticides. No surprise, organic foods have lower pesticide levels. A third says that soil amendment costs are higher on conventional farms, lower on organic farms. Another says labor costs are higher on organic farms due to more hand weeding. Organic food gardens cost less to operate, because fewer amendments (fertilizers, pesticides) are used, and less water is needed. Conventional food gardens produce more food for lower labor costs, but at higher health risks for farm workers due to pesticide use. 

A refractometer with three kale samples, from left to right, Red Russian, Red Curly and Green Curly Kales. 

Food Quality

What’s a home gardener to conclude from this argument? I say:  Expand your definition of organic gardening and look at food quality, specifically at nutrient density:  What form of gardening produces the most nutrient dense food?  ‘Properly mineralized soil’ is the correct answer. This goes beyond avoiding crunchy, sugary, salty processed foods, as good as these taste, to plant and animal foods with high quantities of minerals, proteins, fats, sugars and secondary compounds. This is nutrient density, which we can measure, and more importantly, we can taste.  

Plants grown on optimally healthy soils have higher levels of dissolved solids and minerals in their intercellular sap than do those grown conventionally or on nutritionally out-of-balance soils, regardless of the management method for that soil. These plants are healthier, and their roots, fruits and leaves and stems, which we eat as foods, are more nutrient dense.  They deliver optimal food quality and flavor to us, the eaters.  Likewise, animals grazed on pastures managed for optimal nutritional health are healthier. 

A light orange carrot with mashed fresh carrot in cheesecloth, ready to measure the carrot's juice in the refractometer.

Nutrient Density

Density is measured as dissolved solids in plant juices using a refractometer, a centuries-old device that uses refraction of light to measure fluid concentrations in Brix units. A bar of color crosses a numerical scale; you read the number on the scale. This is the Brix of that solution.  In measures of plant sap quality, the higher the Brix, the better. 

Wine, cheese and juice makers use refractometers to measure Brix and determine ripeness in grapes, tomatoes, berries, and other fruits, because there is a strong correlation between the level of dissolved solids in intercellular sap, and the sugar levels and flavor of the fruit. They often eat the fruits to compare flavor to Brix units, calibrating their sense of taste to these measurements.  Yes, you can taste the differences. High Brix fruits have more flavor. I use my garlic press to mush fresh veggies, and a bit of cheesecloth to squeeze the juice from the crushed sample to test. 

Studies of food quality rarely include the Brix levels of plant saps. Those few studies that do so show that fruits, grains, seeds, and vegetables grown on healthy soils with optimal nutrient balances have higher Brix levels than do conventionally grown foods on unbalanced soils.  

A green curly kale sample in cheesecloth with bright green fresh juice.

Food Quality, Flavor and Health

As consumers of mass-produced foods, many of us have never tasted these flavor differences, due to lack of exposure to truly nutrient dense food. Bring on the compost, humus and biochar, and soil tests for minerals, so that we can determine exactly which minerals our vegetable gardens need. In a healthy soil with optimal levels of nutrients, all of those plants, including fruit vines and shrubs, peas, carrots, beans and even lettuces, will nosh in style, and deliver more nutrition and flavor.  

The result of eating plants grown with optimal soil nutrition is that we can be healthier. So step aside of the arguments about conventional versus organic, and go beyond, into an expanded definition of organic gardening with nutritionally complete soils, with regular soil tests, appropriate mineral supplements, and grow healthier plants. Get optimal flavor, high mineral levels, and higher levels of sugars, proteins, fats and other flavorful compounds. 

Anyone can do this. Gardening is not difficult; it takes time, and soil tests to determine what amendments your soil needs to optimize nutrition for your home garden, orchards, lawn or pasture. The gain is in taste and health.  Steve Solomon’s latest book, The Intelligent Gardener, discusses soil nutrition for growing optimally healthy foods in sufficient detail to get you started. 

Winter is a great time to be planning next year’s vegetable garden. Order soil tests, then add the right minerals to improve your soil, for great eating next summer. Summer is coming, right? The rain will end sometime, right? 

A red curly kale sample with its red-purple colored fresh juice. The chlorophyll is in there, but masked by the reds and purples of the red kale plant. 

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