Tomatoes in the US were tasteless.
That was one of things I first noticed.
They looked better than any tomatoes I’ve seen. Perfectly shaped, identically sized, and ideally red. Yet, they did not taste like tomatoes at home.
I dismissed the notion, thinking I was homesick. Tomatoes are tomatoes everywhere I thought.
My brother and his family moved to the US several years ago. Two weeks in, at the dinner, he asked me: “Do you know why tomatoes do not have a flavor here?”
In the last 50-60 years, the agriculture in developed countries underwent a significant transformation. Developments in fertilizer and seed technology, genetic engineering, made the American agriculture the envy of the world.
If you look at the numbers, the picture is astonishing. Strawberry productivity went up 500%; so did the production of tomatoes and almonds. Onions, nectarine, and grape yields are up 200%. Celery and garlic are up around 250%. Artichokes, beets, broccoli and cantaloupe are up by around 300%.
I went to the USDA website and found annual corn yields for the Iowa state (the biggest corn producer in the US). According to the US government, the yields grew on average about 3% annually. It does not seem much until you plot the numbers:
In the 1940s, one acre yielded 51 bu. In the 2010s, it yielded 163 bu., an increase of 220%.
Livestock technology has also improved. The modern chicken is ready for slaughter in 35 days (in 1948 it took about 70 days for chicken to get ready). It weighs a pound and half more and gets at that weight eating a third less feed.
It is also cheaper now. In 1948, a pound of chicken was $0.60 ($5 in 2014 dollars). In 2014, a pound of chicken was $1.4 (that’s about a 75% reduction in cost).
In the 1940s, a cow produced over 16 pounds of milk per day. Today, the average cow produces 70 pounds of milk. Top performing cattle make almost 200 pounds, that’s a 1,200% increase (!) from 16 pounds. Hens lay twice as many eggs, pigs are 25% bigger, and a cow makes 60% more meat in half of the time.
Everything grows faster, produces more, and costs less.
As impressive as these improvements are, there are costs. And they became clear only recently. David Davis (researcher from Texas University) looked how nutritional content in vegetables have changed from 1950 to 1999. What he found was troubling:
He showed that the amount of 13 nutrients declined over time. Specifically, the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) has decreased in almost all plants. The reductions ranged from 6% for protein to 38% for riboflavin. Calcium and copper declined by 17% and 80%, respectively.
He speculated that the bulk of of the initial depletion effect was due to fertilization and other environmental factors. He showed that the more recent dilutions were due to genetic differences (think GMOs).
In short, there is a negative relationship between yield and nutritional content. And during the last 50 years, the farmers have optimized for one thing: yield. When you optimize for yield, you compromise nutrition.
The modern plant varieties are frantically generating more output. In the process, they fail to fill their yields with nutrients. Instead, they pump them with carbs and water. Hence tasteless tomatoes.
The dilution effect impacts poultry and livestock as well. Increases in dairy production turn milk into modern tomatoes. Milk is now watery and tasteless. That’s one of the reasons why modern yogurt has 2-3 flavors each and almost 30 grams of sugar. Plain yogurt is tasteless.
Farm animals used to be free range and feed on grass. They used to have great variety in their diets. Now, they remain in confined spaces and eat the same grains every day.
And what animals eat impacts how they taste.
For example, grass-fed beef contains more omega-3 than grain-fed beef. The grass-fed beef can elevate precursors for vitamin A and E and have a higher level of antioxidants such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase. It tends to have lower fat-content. It has a distinct taste (omega-3s make food more flavorful) and looks different from grain-fed beef.
Current practices have lowered omega-3s and have increased omega-6s in other products as well. Chicken used to have more omega-3s because they were range-free. They fed on grass or chia seeds. Pastured eggs have more vitamin E and A. The more vegetables chicken eats the more vegetable it becomes.
FOOD IS NOT AS GOOD AS IT USED TO BE. AND IT IS GETTING MORE BLAND.
Mark Schatzker, in his book “The Dorito Effect“, wrote that the first people to notice that the food was getting bland were chefs and cookbook writers. One writer compared the taste of a modern chicken to teddy bear stuffing. Modern chicken, they argued, needs flavoring, increasing amounts of flavoring.
And that’s what food companies and restaurants have been doing. They have been adding more artificial flavors to offset bland food. And why not? Flavors are cheap and the food tastes better. Win/win, right?
What we realize now is that the artificial flavors remove the link between flavor and nutrition. The evolution has perfected that link and the disappearance of this relationship has dire consequences for us.