The food we eat may not be providing us with the nutrients we need

We are sacrificing flavour and nutrients for appearance and ease of transport. We need a debate on food quality.

When it comes to eating well, the advice we get is that fresh is better than processed, fruit and veg are better than fats and carbs, and organic is best of all.

But what if the food we eat is not truly feeding us? Many choose to buy organic to be assured food doesn't have the "bad stuff" in it. But how do we know it's got the "good stuff" in it – flavour, wholesomeness, vitamins, minerals?

This question was among those taken up last week at a meeting on food quality at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Hudson Valley, New York, attended by farmers, educators, researchers and activists looking to bring quality into discussions of food, nutrition and agriculture. Hudson Valley has become a food destination due to its many small farms and celebrated chefs (and because the famed Culinary Institute of America is located there).

Graeme Sait, an author-educator on nutrition and agriculture in Australia, believes the food we eat today offers only 30% of the nourishment compared to the food our grandparents ate as children.

According to research which analysed government tables published in the Compendium of Foods, a steak in 2002 had half the iron of its counterpart in 1940 thanks to changes in what the animals eat. And remember the adage "An apple a day keeps the doctor away?" Over the last 80 years, the calcium content of one medium apple has dropped by nearly half according to Nutrition Security Institute research.

A core question – one that was revisited throughout the three days was: how do you establish food quality? Is quality determined by metrics, comparing levels of minerals or phytonutrients, or something you know when you see, taste, or smell it?

The latter poses a challenge, says Fran McManus, a food writer and educator in Princeton, New Jersey, because many people's sense of taste has been "hijacked" by processed foods laden with salt, fat, sweeteners, and artificial flavourings. "A person's reference point for flavour – what food should taste like – is set early in life," said McManus, who has developed food sensory training workshops for local schools. "If we don't teach children to recognise quality, we'll never get there."

Flavour is not just a matter of aesthetics, food producers stressed, but a reflection of how the chemistry of the ripening process in a fruit or vegetable syncs up with our own biological needs. Fruits are generally picked unripe for easier transport, and never fully express their full flavour potential, said McManus.

"Taste is connected to health," said Walter Goldstein, a corn breeder in Wisconsin and founder of the Mandaamin Institute, devoted to developing more nutritious corn and wheat and healthy farming methods (the word Mandaamin means "wonder seed" in the Algonquin language). "If breeders and consumers lose or don't exercise the capacity to taste their vegetables, fruit, and grain, and care only about quantity and appearance, an erosion of taste occurs. This loss in quality may affect our health, as the tastes and flavours of food inform our digestive functions and our sense of fullness and well being."

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