Food & Health


Could real time analysis of the Nutritional Density of the food we eat become the next great leap for food production? Clive Bright of the Organic Trust and Dermot McNally of Transition Monaghan take a look at this exciting area of science.


Ever since the days of the hunter-gatherers, humans have realised the importance of a varied and nutritious diet. In the 1950s, nutritional scientists decided to look at the components of food (minerals, vitamins and carbohydrates) and work out their role in human health and nutrition. They wanted to be able to guide consumers on how to eat an optimum diet that would contribute to their overall health and wellbeing. To date, around 150 chemicals in food have been analysed and their roles quantified. However, according to a report, ‘The Unmapped Chemical Complexity of our Diet’, published in Nature Food (2020), over 26,625 distinct biochemicals are found in our diet and these are only the ones that have been defined!


When you consider the proportions and interaction between biochemicals and the secondary metabolites they create, the complexity of our food is mind-blowing. Secondary metabolites are created when separate bio-chemicals available in our food come together in our guts and are processed or metabolised by our gut microbes to become a new biochemical compound that is not found in the food when analysed. Science has isolated over 49,000 secondary metabolites, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and polyphenols. These compounds are only available in tiny amounts, but they are extremely important. Polyphenols, for example, help the body create natural anti-inflammatories and antioxidants. They can fight viruses and bacteria, prevent and halt the progression of cancers, buffer against allergic reactions, prevent blood clots, and the list goes on.


Farmers and home growers know instinctively that healthy biological soil makes more nutrients and minerals available to plants. Plants grown in healthy soil take up more of these minerals and turn them into nutrient-dense food. But how do we know this? Can we tell if the food we produce and buy is nutrient-dense? In an attempt to answer these questions, the refractometer was developed. This is a simple tool that measures the density of suspended solids in a drop of juice squeezed from a plant.

The refractometer is commonly used by grape growers (and other fruit growing specialists) to indicate the sugars in the fruits before harvest. It doesn’t give a precise break down of the components, but it gives a vague indication of the whole, which is probably more valuable in the context of something far too complex to comprehend.

Some growers use a similar process to analyse progress of growing fruit and to make rough determinations as to whether the crop is receiving the nutrients it needs to become a bumper crop: this informs their decisions in regard to fertilisation and other treatments needed. So science does, and will continue to, make this process better.


There is another tool for evaluating food that is better than a refractometer or chemical analysis, and it’s built into our bodies – our nose! Fragrance plays a massive role in taste. Our taste buds can perceive salt, sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, cool (menthol), but all the subtleness that enriches our food experience comes from our noses. We can smell polyphenols and phytochemicals. When we eat top-quality ingredients, those complex, delicious smells signify nutrient density, and we are hardwired to detect it.

Bland food is “hollow” and missing the micronutrients. Smelling quality is a prominent part of the wine and coffee industry. A master wine sommelier can identify the variety, terroir and vintage of wine just by the smell. Terroir is the component that has to do with soil; it is a French term meaning ‘expression of place’. Terroir is a tangible example that soil health matters for flavour and, in turn, nutrient density.

Home gardeners can testify to comparative examples for any vegetable. Compare a garden grown Irish strawberry in summer with an imported Moroccan berry in mid winter – the comparison in taste is staggering. Science seems to be telling us that foods lacking the appropriate taste and smells are not as nutritionally dense as crops grown in optimum conditions. On paper, we are told the guideline nutritional value for typical portions of food, but this whole area of science seems to be proving that these guidelines are not based on the real world. Foods grown in optimum conditions could have vastly more nutrients while the opposite is also true.


In his book Nourishment, Fred Provenza explains that if given a choice, animals can tailor their diet to their nutritional needs, and even self-medicate by a positive feedback loop between their diet, the gut and the brain. Provenza emphasises livestock can only do this with a rich choice of diet – something not available to animals exclusively fed on grain rations. He maintains that healthy meat products need to come from operations that foster soil health and diversity, and argues that offering livestock a monoculture is a welfare issue that creates stress in animals, therefore raising cortisol, which in turn affects meat quality. He also advocates for the positive environmental impacts of carefully managed native perennial pastures in healthy biological soil, and how it can give meat and milk its providence – its terroir.

He highlights the nutritional trickle down effect from the array of minerals and micro-nutrients from deep-rooted native plants concentrated into rich flavoured meat and milk. The botanical diversity of regional pastures affects the concentration of phenolics in distinctive cheeses like Gruyere. Other compounds in forages like carotenoids impart a yellow colour that influences milk and cheeses. Animals instinctively understand the saying, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” [Hippocrates].


Some advocates of progressive farming believe that we will be able to grade food nutritional density in the future as crops are harvested, and that this should guide the price that the market is willing to pay. They firmly expect (from the array of studies and experiments already carried out) that farm outputs grown and farmed in a holistic, regenerative nature will be nutritionally superior to crops from chemical intensive monocultures, and from livestock kept in confined unnatural production facilities. Other food analysts say that these advances will have a profound impact on the global sale of food: it will become less attractive to ship food with low nutritional density around the world – our Moroccan strawberries may be a case in point. In this era of carbon emissions, the idea of shipping food with low health benefits will become harder to justify and afford. Consumers will simply shop with nutritional value in mind. On the contrary, high quality dense foods will be in more demand across the world.


The Organic Trust believe the organic sector in Ireland is in a prime position to capitalise on this expanding area of science. As we focus on our soil health and grow tastier, more nutritious food, we can stand behind the quality of our produce. Regional artisan operations, in particular, can foster the story of their terroir. The fact that it tastes better is credible and immune to any greenwashing. But it is also a built-in quality control for our practices, and our operations should always centre around soil health and diversity.

Our thanks to Clive and the Organic Trust for their partnership in delivering these news pieces to the wider audience at the Northern Standard.

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