Nutrition density in food — Part 1

Shankar Venkataraman
6 min readNov 28, 2020

Sometimes an idea that is profound and radical can be complex and difficult to grasp when we get into the details.

I try to explain this profound and important topic of nutrition density that can be a game-changer for farming and healthy food seekers all over the world.

Nutrition density is roughly defined as the quantity of minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins per unit calorie of food intake. I will provide examples later in this blog.

Recently I bought a bunch of beets from whole foods (A supermarket in USA) from a farm I know in Salinas valley. I came home and boiled it to add it to my salad. I found the taste bland and not the deep earthy sweetness I am used to. I met an agronomist friend a few months ago and had 3 hours of great conversation about organic farm visits he did. He told me that the soils of some big organic farms (tractor plowed and 250–10,000 acres) are devoid of earthworms and have almost no organic matter (0.75%). I could quickly make a connection with the bland beetroot I just ate. The unfortunate truth about organic food is “it's MOSTLY not nutrient dense”. In fact it's “RARELY nutrient dense”.

As eaters of farm-grown food, we fail to notice that farming is difficult to do not just because of the food prices farmers are paid but because plants are not really healthy. Farming is difficult economically because plants are regularly attacked by insects and diseases. It has become clear to me that yields, soil health, and nutrient density are deeply correlated with each other and also highly correlated with a lack of insect attack and disease attacks on plants. All this is again deeply correlated to human health. Correlation is simply a function that is used to relate two different parameters that are measurable.

Where is the data on nutrition density? People who are buying food have no way to know the exact nutrition density numbers. Is there a spectrometer device that can calculate nutrition density for vegetables and fruits?

Something that is food for one species cannot be food for another species. Larvae of a beetle do not have a liver to digest fat and special enzymes to digest protein. When a growing plant is actively building higher-order compounds, its indigestible to larvae of beetle or fungi and bacteria to consume those compounds. A plant with these higher-order compounds called secondary metabolites correlates with remarkable colors, aroma and flavor, and a shiny coat on their leaves. These plants for us are nutrition dense and are indigestible for insects and their larvae.

Examples of Secondary metabolites made by plants

Nature’s report card says clearly that if insects are attacking a plant, its insect food. If fungus is attacking a plant it's fungal food. So these foods are unfit for human consumption.

How does nutrient density lead to soil health and vice versa?

The more sugar a plant is able to make, the more the plant puts sugar into the soil and more the microbial activity in the soil which helps more nutrients to be extracted from the soil by microbes and helps those nutrients to flow into the plants. As the plant flourishes, soil life flourishes, the crop becomes more nutritious, and the people who eat it become more healthy. Healthy plants create healthy soil and they are the engine for soil health. Without plants, the soil is just geology without biology. Plants do not wear out the soil and make it devoid of nutrition. It's the wrong soil management practices by the farmer that make soil poor. You can manage soil and crops in such a way they deplete organic matter and deplete biological activity or you can manage to increase organic matter and increase and enhance biological activity.

If the crops are not managed well, they are bad for you. Depending on how a brassica crop (cabbage cauliflower broccoli kale pak choi radish etc) is grown, it has high levels of complete proteins and other health-promoting compounds. None of the anti-cancer and other health benefits shown in the paragraph below for brassica can be gained if the crop is not grown with correct soil management practices.

Nutrient-dense Brassica prevents oxidative stress, induce detoxification enzymes, stimulate the immune system, decrease the risk of cancers, inhibit malignant transformation and carcinogenic mutations, as well as, reduce the proliferation of cancer cells. Brassica vegetables contain a lot of valuable metabolites, which are effective in the chemoprevention of cancer, which has been already documented by numerous studies. Due to the presence of vitamins C and E, carotenoids and antioxidant enzymes such as catalase, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and peroxidase, these vegetables are a considerable source of antioxidants, and due to the presence of polyphenols and the sulfur-organic compounds exert also antimutagenic action. Moreover, these vegetables are also rich in glucosinolates, which are unstable compounds and undergo degradation into biologically active indoles and isothiocyanates under the influence of enzyme presented in plant tissues- myrosinase. These substances through the induction of enzymatic systems I and II phases of xenobiotics metabolism may affect the elimination or neutralization of carcinogenic and mutagenic factors, and consequently, inhibit DNA methylation and cancer development.

Depending on what a cow eats, milk has healthy omega3-omega6 ratios in it or unhealthy omega3-omega6 ratios in it. The healthy ratio is 1:4 or less. The western diet has a 1:10 to 1:50 omega3-omega6 ratio in it.

The Meditteranean diet, low carb diet, keto diet, No fat diet, etc.. are not going to save the health of people. A nutrition-dense diet will save their health. People think that all carrots are the same, all wheat is the same and all milk is the same. It's not. The effect of the crop on your body has a lot to do with how it's grown. You may say that I cannot digest wheat or milk. But that only depends on how it's produced. What you are able to buy as wheat or milk is not working for you because of the way it's produced. If you are living in America and you travel to Europe, then wheat and milk may work for you.

All the economic incentives for farmers today are on the “volume” they produce and not the nutrient quality. So the farmers naturally follow the money because they need to make a living. The only way to incentivize farmers to grow quality food is to apply an economic lever that measures nutrient density.

People who are buying food, think they buy food for health. But where is the data?. A refractometer can test nutrition density. But there is no calibration for the refractometer. If there is no way to know the food you are buying is nutrition-dense then what is the way. Is there anyone who has problems with food being nutrition-dense? Nobody. Then why is there very little nutrient-dense food from very few farms. If our health is such a great concern for us that we must consult nutritionists and doctors, why is there no emphasis to grow nutrient-dense food that has power to heal us.

Our body needs dozens of different elements billions of times a day just for basic maintenance of bodily functions. Iron, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, cobalt, copper, phosphorous, potassium, chromium, molybdenum.. so on. When you don’t have basic elements needed by the body, and you are building your body out of the food you eat, your body will stop functioning. People are experiencing chronic diseases at epidemic levels across the globe now in ways that did not exist four decades ago. The way the food is grown leads to what is in your food that leads to what is in your body which leads to how the body functions. It is a critical and simple connection and farmers have no economic incentive to work on this. This is why nutrition-density is critical.

There is a clear variation in the nutrition density of food based on how it's grown. 400–1800 percent variation in nutrition elements like Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Selenium, zinc, calcium, etc.. and 7500 to 20,000 percent variation in secondary metabolites like polyphenols and anti-oxidants. So it's completely ignorant to say all carrots or all oranges are the same.

-Shankar @mapletreefarms @bhoomifarms



Shankar Venkataraman

Farmer, author, farming teacher, public speaker. Areas of Agriculture and technology in Agriculture.