The Mineral-Depleted Food Scandal

The news (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) has been full of reports about how our food in Britain is becoming less nutritious and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a full set of minerals and vitamins through the food we buy in supermarkets. I have been told by several people that this is the reason why it is so important to take supplements. Can this be true? If so then it is truly shocking! We can no longer feed ourselves! What is going on here?

I’ve always thought that the best way to get your minerals and vitamins was to eat a varied and balanced diet, rather than take dietary supplements. I further believe that the major source of information about the need to take supplements comes only from the big business interests behind the ‘health fraud’ industry.

So I did some digging. The common source behind these allegations of Mineral Depleted Food appears to be a report issued by the Food Commission. Let’s take a look at this.

First, the Food Commission is a consumer lobby group involved in doing consumer surveys and publishing ‘thought leadership’. It does not in itself publish peer-reviewed research. Like all such groups, it has an agenda, and one that I probably broadly agree with. Nonetheless, given this, one should always be cautious in examining its claims.

The report in itself suggests that several foods (meat and dairy) have lower levels of minerals than the same foods had in the 1920s. There are several problems with this analysis:

  • If this is indeed true, there is nothing in this report to suggest that the levels have fallen to dangerous levels. Is it still likely that a varied and balanced diet will supply most peoples’ needs? The report declines to comment.
  • There have been several criticisms of the methodology of this research (comparing government tables, the best part of a century apart). Analytical methods have changes enormously over this time and there is no correction for biases that will have been introduced as a result. (Remember the famous iron-in-spinach myth?)
  • The report goes on to show that 8% of women might be mineral deficient but (this is the important bit) the report does not say that this is a result of the (alleged) lower mineral levels in food. This could be down to these women just having very poor diets. This is to be expected, as we know some people do not eat well and there is no attempt to correct for this. This is either a little disingenuous or just plain not rigorous enough. The report allows the connection to be made in the readers mind – but does not state the connection itself.

So, not very convincing then. So what else does the Food Commission say on this subject then? Interestingly, it also publishes a report on vitamin and mineral fortification in diets (as promoted by many major brands, e.g. Nestle) and goes on to widely condemn the practice. One of the key findings in this report is that such practices are a subject of concern since it “promote[es] the concept of added nutrients as improving health, versus promotion of an overall healthy diet.” In other words, the Food Commission says that you should eat a healthy diet; don’t rely on added supplements.

It would appear to be case closed, but the story gets a lot better.

Why did the Food Commission publish this report? Who did the original research?

It is stated that the research was done by a Dr David Thomas. Now Dr Thomas was originally a geologist (alarm bells) and has “retrained as a chiropractor and nutritionist” (very loud sirens). Dr Thomas does not work at any academic institution doing research, as you might have thought given the seriousness of this report, but rather has been running a company that sells (drum roll) mineral supplements. (have a look what the quackometer has to say about this site.)

So, could it be that this report was originally just a piece of puff marketing released by a company that would directly profit from people believing it? I don’t know. If it is just marketing then it is a scandal. Obviously many people are worried about their health enough to invest lots of money in unnecessary supplements.

Personally, I think the next time you are tempted to blow twenty quid in a health food shop on unnecessary supplements, you should keep on walking down the high street until you find an Oxfam or Save the Children collector and pop that twenty quid in their collection tin. The added nutritional value that the money will provide to struggling farmers in truly undernourished parts of the world will greatly outweigh any marginal benefit those pills will bring you – IF you eat a varied, balanced diet.

34 Comments on The Mineral-Depleted Food Scandal

  1. At first it’s ho-hum, yet another story on bogus research (pseudoscience being beyond epidemic proportions these days). Then the punch line hits – a supplement selling chiropractor came up with it. Made me laugh.

    Nice work.

  2. I find your attack on mineral/food supplements very disturbing. I have mitochondrial failure and my G.P cannot prescribe me the coenzymes or minerals that I require to keep me functioning on a daily basis.Hence I have to take supplements – as they provide the coenzymes in the right concentrations, which I cannot metabolize in sufficient quantity from the food that I eat. What would you suggest I do otherwise?

  3. I wasn’t to impressed by the Food Commission picking on Chris Hoy as one of the bad guys pushing junk food because he was promoting “high sugar” Kellogs branflakes. Now if I’m to believe Kellogs and that the average portion is 30gm, then that’s about 7gm of sugar (versus the 24 gm of sugars you’d find in a typical 200ml glass of orange juice). Even if 30gm is a bit small, then it’s hardly going to kill you unless you try and live on a diet made up largely of dry bran flakes. Tape a carton of UHT semi-skimmed milk to the cereal carton in the appropriate portions and the resultant meal drops from the FSA red sugar into the green category, even with the added lactose.

    Of course this all comes about as the FSA insist on red-flagging foods solely on the basis of the percentage of a given substance rather than the amount you consume in reasonable portions (they do put the absolute amount per portion on their coloured wheel-of-death, but next to the traffic light colour there’s not much clue as to whether the total amount is significant).

    Of course the GDA system (which I greatly prefer) has its problems too, but that’s largely because there is simply no way that a few square centimetres of packet space can convey the complex issues of a healthy diet. Simpistic colour coding is no substitute for people being aware of how to plan a reasonably healthy diet (it’s a truism that there are no unhealthy foods, just unhealthy diets).
    It’s also not helped by all the spurious certainty claimed by a lot of the food lobby. The oft quoted stuff about the portions of fruit/vegetable, the units of alcohol and the like are subject to a huge range of uncertainties and variations in individuals.

    The Food Commission also appears to invite other groups with agendas to publish articles on their subscription magazine. As an example, authors from the Soil Association who have a habit of mixing up some sensible ideas with a lot of unsupported, messianic stuff more in common with a faith organisation.

    From the little I can read on the Food Commission site, then I think this is just yet another self-serving pressure organisation that doesn’t care too much for rigour and the essential uncertainties and has a liking for headlines to capture public interest. After all, they, like anybody else have a living to make and they appear to be funded from subscriptions to their magazine.

  4. SnapDragon6:

    I find your misinterpretation of the points made, and your overreaction very disturbing.

    It seems to me that at no point is this post saying that vitamin and mineral supplements aren’t necessary, for some people – yourself being a perfect example – who have deficiencies and health problems caused by them. It is saying that the impartiality of this report should certainly be questioned, especially given the conflict of interest, which we can assume was not stated. And seeing as there are scant details of what research was done, and what steps were made to take into account the failings that LCN pointed out. Those being;

    1) declining to mention whether a well balanced diet could supply peoples needed nutrients (if indeed the nutrient levels of the food stuffs has dropped). Therefore resorting to supplements may not be necessary.

    2) not taking into account changes in sensitivity and accuracy of analytical chemistry between the two periods that measurements were taken. Therefore the nutrient value may not have dropped at all, or may have have dropped only an insignificant amount.

    3) failing to show that any of the 8% of mineral deficient women were made up of those being so due to an alleged reduction in the nutrient value of the food stuffs. Therefore any drop in the nutrient value of food may have little bearing on the health problems of todays population.

    Ultimately it is misleading as the vast majority of people would benefit far more, both in the health and their wallets, by consuming a well balanced diet, instead of buying largely unnecessary (as shown by a large number of high quality studies) supplements.

  5. @SnapDragon6: I don't think anyone is suggesting that people be discouraged from taking supplements where there are medical reasons for them. But the vast majority of healthy people, who have a reasonably balanced & varied diet, do not need them.

  6. I love food, especially when it tastes good and I eat it whenever i can.
    But heaven only knows whether my diet is balanced.
    Frankly I don’t want to be bothered to work it out.
    For only £1 (not your neo-puritanical, science-nurd-rabble-rousing £20 mate) I can buy 1 months worth of Sainsbury’s multi-vitamin tablets.
    One of those a day and I’ve got all the vits I need.
    All day. Every day. Sorted.
    What can possibly be wrong with that?

  7. Anonymous – the ‘multivit’ as an insurance may cause harm if it gives you a false sense of achieving a balanced diet and therefore, you no longer concentrate so much on healthy eating. There is no shortcut here.

    Healthy eating is not hard. The vitamin sellers try to make it look hard to you so that you take a ‘fallback’.

    In contrast, many recent large studies have been showing that taking vitamins actually does not achieve the health effects you would expect and indeed may even do you direct harm, e.g.

    Vitamins E and C were ineffective in preventing `cardiovascular disease in men. Sesso HD, Buring JE, Christen WG et al. JAMA, 2008;300 (Physicians’ Health Study II, mong 14,641 male physicians. […] The study participants were randomized to receive 400 IU of vitamin E every other day or a placebo and 500 mg of vitamin C daily or a placebo.

    B Vitamins (B12, B6, folate) May Not Reduce Cardiovascular Events For Coronary Artery Disease Patients Ebbing M, et al, JAMA 2008, Aug 20 — In a large clinical trial involving patients with coronary artery disease, use of B vitamins B6, B12, folate was not effective for preventing death or cardiovascular events. Patients were randomly assigned to one of four groups receiving a daily oral dose of one of the following treatments: folic acid, 0.8mg, plus vitamin B12 , 0.4mg, plus vitamin B6 , 40mg (n= 772); folic acid plus vitamin B12 (n = 772); vitamin B6 alone (n = 772); or placebo (n = 780).The study was stopped early because of concerns among the participants about preliminary results from another similar Norwegian study suggesting no benefits from the treatment and an increased risk of cancer from the B vitamins. Daily supplementation combination that included folic acid and vitamin B6 and B12 had no significant effect on the overall risk of cancer, including breast cancer, among women at high risk of cardiovascular disease. Zhang M et al, JAMA 2008 Nov. 5.

    Certain Vitamin Supplements May Increase Lung Cancer Risk, Especially In Smokers. November 11, 2008, from American Thoracic Society. March of the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

    Selenium and vitamin E supplements, taken either alone or together, did not prevent prostate cancer; these results came from initial, independent review of study data from the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT), funded by the National Cancer Institute. (publication Feb. 1 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.)

  8. All the studies quoted above investigate whether high doses of vitamins can cure or prevent diseases.
    They indicate that high doses of vitamins do not prevent or cure the diseases studied.
    Maybe they are harmful.
    But these studies tell us absolutely nothing about whether a daily multivitamin will help maintain good health.
    And lets face it, that’s not a question which will ever be addressed by a double blind study. (Difficulty selecting endpoints, no-one will fund, etc)
    So any opinion on the matter must rather be obtained through logic.
    Just ask yourself one question.
    How long did Barbara Cartland live?

  9. I cannot believe you can get away with totally bad-naming one of the most trustworthy knowledgable people I have ever met! David Thomas has been treating his patients for 30 years and the reason he carried out the ‘Mineral Depletion Report’ was because he was concerned about the amount of patients that had signs of different mineral deficiencies. He also was aware of a lot of ‘modern’ diseases, namely ME, ADD, ADHD, Autism and guess what, a lot of these people after being tested were deficient in Magnesioum, Selenium and Zinc (to name a few). David then sourced the best mineral supplement he could find and I can asure you, he is not a ‘Businessman’ with a money making agenda, he wants to make people well. I really think you should meet him and hear what he has to say before you slate a man you don’t even know. I am not even going to tell him about what you have written because you have him ‘so wrong’ it would probably really hurt him! I know how it might seem BUT you couldn’t be more wrong, please consider having a meeting with him and removing this crap from your web-site. It’s not big to make assumptions that are so badly wrong about a man with more integrity than anyone I’ve ever known.

  10. Julie Rose is spot on. David is a man of the highest integrity.
    The agricultural, chemical and pharma industies have conned us into using petro based chemical fertilisers for over 60 years. Does anyone with an oz of sense believe that after this length of time there are any nutrients left in our crops?
    Our whole food chain has been corrupted. The use of highly carcinogenic chemical sprays to kill weeds and bugs are commonly used. (do you think they won’t effect us?).
    GMO foods result in tumours and low sperm counts in rats.
    Fluoride and chlorine in our drinking water plus loads of other nasties.
    Just use your common sense everyone, it does not take much to realise what is really going on here!

    • May I suggest people rather use what they learned at school and realise that a plant cannot distinguish between “natural” and “artificial” sources of fertilisation? Whether you use ammonium from (liquid) manure synthetic ammonium, whether synthetic nitrates or “natural” ones from Guano are used, it doesn’t matter to the plant, and one form of fertilisation does not produce a more nutrient fruit/vegetable than the other. “Petro based chemical fertilisers” are synthesised from natural gas, which – the name almost gives it away – is a natural product, and from nitrogen – also a natural product (okay, it’s a bit more complicated, but that would lead to far, if you’re interested try googling Haber-Bosch process).

      • The crops wouldn’t necessarily be dead. And don’t you think there’s a reason why we’re all developing more diseases earlier than before?

  11. I don’t understand the author’s intention. Article is trying to awake all of us with the dangers of chemical farming & the resultant depletion in various nutrients from the food chain. I am 60 year old medical practitioner & I am clearly seeing severe rise in the various metabolic diseases like hyperacidity, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, skin problems ……….over last 30 years. Don’t ask for the formulae everytime but use commonsense. Declining minerals from the food chain certainly plays very major role in the human health.

    • ” Declining minerals from the food chain certainly plays very major role in the human health.”

      Evidence for this would be very good. Do you have any?

  12. Silagra, launched by Cipla, contains Sildenafil Citrate as the active constituent. It helps men with impotence to attain satisfaction during the love making.
    Exactly like its branded counterpart, Viagra
    When taken they improve the blood supply to the male reproductive organ thus, helping the impotent men to get his reproductive organ stiffer and keep it harder for sufficient period of time.

    • And your employer is who exactly?

      How is this available without prescription? Sildenafil is a prescription drug.

      If your claim is that it is some sort of herbal or natural product (playing fast and loose with the H and N words) has it been tested for the contraindications of the proper product. So, for example, can gay men safely use it in conjunction with poppers and does it affect people with knackered kidneys and livers?

      Or is it just a scam like “herbal Viagra” from China (containing knock-off silfenadil – presumably “just to make sure” and to give the useless pot pourri some, errr, lift).

    • I suppose that rather than just being critical of quacks and the promoters and irrational fans of pseudoscientific nonsense I ought to be more open minded and even handed in my approach.

      Therefore (based on Mrs Plenty O’Tooles prompting and to stop her whinging about LCN saying geologists raise alarm bells – I told her it was contextualised in terms of quackery) I am prepared to accept that this rubbish might possibly prevent jet lag in hamsters.

      Patricia V. Agostino, Santiago A. Plano and Diego A. Golombek of Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina, for their discovery that Viagra aids jetlag recovery in hamsters.
      REFERENCE: “Sildenafil Accelerates Reentrainment of Circadian Rhythms After Advancing Light Schedules,” Patricia V. Agostino, Santiago A. Plano and Diego A. Golombek, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 23, June 5 2007, pp. 9834-9.

  13. Mineral depletion in our soil is a Global problem and has been confirmed by the WHO, UNICEF, UK Ministry of Agriculture and the Royal Society of Chemistry-North America 85% loss, South America 76% loss, Asia 76% loss, Africa 74% loss, Europe 72% loss and Australia 55% loss. Just checking out the current health statistics of any nation speaks for itself.

    • Please link to the papers that support your argument both for mineral loss and the health statistics that you appear to claim are the consequence. Otherwise, we can dismiss this as more unsubstantiated myth.

  14. This is relevant. Scientific American
    Sustainability »


    Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?
    Because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today
    April 27, 2011

    Martin Poole, Digital Vision/Thinkstock

    Dear EarthTalk: What’s the nutritional difference between the carrot I ate in 1970 and one I eat today? I’ve heard that that there’s very little nutrition left. Is that true?—Esther G., Newark, N.J.

    It would be overkill to say that the carrot you eat today has very little nutrition in it—especially compared to some of the other less healthy foods you likely also eat—but it is true that fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend is soil depletion: Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.

    A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition.

    “Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reported Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.” There have likely been declines in other nutrients, too, he said, such as magnesium, zinc and vitamins B-6 and E, but they were not studied in 1950 and more research is needed to find out how much less we are getting of these key vitamins and minerals.

    The Organic Consumers Association cites several other studies with similar findings: A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent. A similar study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal,found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Yet another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.”

    the story is not as simple as you make out.

    • I am sorry but this statement appears to fall into the same traps as others made about mineral depletion.

      Worth pointing out that the Organic Consumers Association has a vested interest here and their conclusions are not consistent with independent studies.

  15. And those other “charity” working thieves that for their own fancy vacations. Thanks but I’d rather spend my money on vitamins

    • The plants you buy in shops are healthy and would not be economic if they were struggling to grow in soils that could not support them. Whilst the absolute quantity of trace minerals may vary – they key word is obviously trace. Humans do not need bulk volumes but enough to live on. There is no evidence that normal food that you and I buy is failing to deliver that.

  16. There is currently a subset of people on earth who have ailments that are due to deficiency in some essential mineral. The rest don’t have ailments but some clearly will be on the cusp. If the levels of essential minerals in food subsequently went down would the numbers of people with deficiency go up, down or stay the same?

  17. There are major problems with this article. There is a lot of biased waffle around the theme and the three core pieces of evidence cited to denigrate the ‘selected’ source of the mineral-depletion theory:

    ‘there is nothing in this report to suggest that the levels have fallen to dangerous levels’
    This does not mean that there has been no mineral-depletion.

    ‘Analytical methods have changes [sic] enormously over this time and there is no correction for biases’
    This does not prove that the research conclusions were faulty; they may only lack finer detail.

    ‘The report goes on to show that 8% of women might be mineral deficient but … does not say that this is a result of the (alleged) lower mineral levels in food. This could be down to these women just having very poor diets’
    This point would, indeed, render the citation immaterial, but, again, this is immaterial when it comes to making the point about mineral-depletion.

    It is very easy to perceive that any disingenuousness exists on the part of the writer of this article. Its main objective is denigrating the mineral-depletion theory, and this is attempted by relying solely on one source which it lambasts in the most shallow and unscientific manner. This item does not answer the question at all. There is no reference to any real studies, and it appears, from the look of most of the comments below it, to be preaching to the choir. Ultimately, then, this is a highly irresponsible piece of hack pseudo-journalism, at best; dangerously misleading at worst.

  18. Okay lets say the soils are not depleted can you explain to be about the Brix Refractometer this is where this can be proven other wise and seems that some people seem to miss the boat about that.

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