In my current role as head of a large medical faculty I get to speak with many clinicians about issues they face when treating patients. In so many cases the underlying cause is a bad diet. This will not be that big a shock to many. The availability and consumption of so much energy-dense, nutritionally poor food has been well documented for a number of years.
More surprising to me are my discussions with clinical nutrition experts, and what I have gleaned from reading some of the literature. The evidence points to the fact that what we think is nutritious food is a lot less so than we realise, especially in the area of micronutrients such as fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
How can this be? I’ve come to the conclusion there are a range of factors that have come into play. The integrity of soils around the world has been challenged by growing more crops more quickly. The genetic selection of many types of fruit and vegetables has seemed to be more about yield, size, shape and colour of the produce than the nutritional value. And the influence of growing amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere seems to have had a negative influence on the balance between macro and micronutrient content of plants. Added to this is the growing amount of animal protein we consume from intensive production systems that rely on nutritionists adding enough micronutrients based on human requirements rather than what animals need to grow quickly. From the evidence I can obtain, this is seldom the case.
For those who think the antidote to this is to pop a few health supplements each day, think again. Many can’t afford such practices, and is this really how we think children should obtain the nutrition they need?
In many cases, our bodies can’t absorb micronutrients in the form of tablets. And the more I read about missing ingredients and the presence of chemical contaminants, the less likely I am to ever take supplements.
So when someone says apples don’t taste like apples any more, perhaps they are correctly identifying that apples (and many other ‘healthy foods’) are not providing the fundamental nutritional needs they once did.
Chris Elliott is director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast