Measuring Food/Crop Quality…And Getting Paid for Quality

Have you ever had a fantasy about having a tool that will measure the true quality of fruits and vegetables that you are producing at your farm or purchasing in the produce aisle or at the farm market? The best tool, until now, has been the refractometer to measure Brix. While Brix testing is a great management tool for growers, produce managers and farm market vendors strongly oppose consumers cutting a fruit or vegetable and squeezing the juice onto a refractometer or taste testing prior to purchasing. The development of such a tool that is based on a set of criteria (mineral density, antioxidant levels, proteins, and other parameters) is underway and data collection is ongoing. This handheld device will report a “value” of the fruit/vegetable through an app on your cell phone in real time. This is closer than you might think thanks to the vision of Dan Kittredge, founder of the BioNutrient Food Association (BFA).

Most of agriculture is built on the business model that production yields are the basis for growing food. It is how farmers are paid; the more yield, the more income…assuming there is a buyer. The quality of the food produced is ignored in this paradigm. Dr Carey Reams is the pioneer who popularized the concept of Brix testing, because he understood that higher Brix food had higher mineral content, where as lower Brix food lacked the nutritive value. He also taught that “All Disease was a result of a mineral deficiency!” This is applicable for plants, animals and humans. Given the current state of agriculture: insecticides, fungicides and simplistic N-P-K fertilizer, it is crystal clear the amount of balanced nutrition in our food is lacking. The extent of chronic illness in livestock and humans confirms Dr Ream’s concept. If your customer or consumer of your crop could measure the quality…would they buy it? Would they be willing to pay more for your pint of blueberries, tomatoes or carrots because they tasted better, had better nutrient levels, had more anti-oxidants than your competition at the farm market, the produce aisle or your roadside stand? The technology is here: the data collection is happening. The tool aptly named the BioNutrient SpectroMeter is real.

Dan Kittredge spent his life growing organic food for his family and his customers. Struggling with pests and disease on his crops and understanding the correlation of soil and plant health to environmental and human health, Dan’s journey began with the mission of “Increasing quality in the food supply.” The inherent challenge in his journey is “what determines quality and how do we measure it?”

Fast forward to November 2017 at the BioNutrient Food Association’s 7th Annual Soil and Nutrition Conference titled “Growing the Food Movement Around Food Quality.” At this conference, the BFA launched the Real Food Campaign to bridge the food, health, environmental, and climate movements and provide tools for transparency in the food supply. The allure of this conference included the presentation of the BioNutrient SpectroMeter to measure food quality, not to mention a speaker lineup “next to none.” As a speaker at the 2016 conference, the writer of this article embraced the opportunity to be an attendee and vendor at this dynamic conference. The preconference track included the presentation of the beta version of this meter that measures food quality (nutrient density.) The BioNutrient SpectroMeter uses light reflectance to measure nutrient density of a crop with results in real time. This light reflectance concept is not new, and with technology it is small enough to be integrated on a cell phone. At that time the focus was collecting data on specific crops and building a database of nutrient levels to define relative quality and determine if there is variability. Sample analysis, data collection and interpretation was/is being completed at the Real Food Campaign Lab located Ann Arbor, MI. The current data collection includes measurements for nutrients, vitamins, polyphenols and antioxidants. Future analysis may include additional metrics like flavonoids (flavor) and essential oils (aroma.)

To begin proof of concept, the process started in 2018 with carrots and spinach from seven states, and 50 unique stores and 68 farms/gardeners. 648 carrot and 181 spinach samples were analyzed and here are a couple highlights:

  • Polyphenol levels in one “good” carrot was equal to 200 of the worst carrots, meaning you would have to consume 200 of the worst carrots to get the same amount of polyphenols of the best carrot.
  • Antioxidant levels were as high as 90:1 variation between the best and the worst carrots.
  • Iron levels varied in Spinach, where eating one leaf of good spinach vs having to eat fourteen leaves of the worst to give you the same ppm of Iron.

To date the results have been astounding, the data gathered proved there are extreme variabilities in the parameters tested and therefore extreme variabilities in the nutritional content the crops tested. “All carrots aren’t created equal!”

There were also 0-6 and 6-12 inch soil samples submitted from the fields or plots where these crops were grown, along with management systems, fertility programs, etc. for some not all of the samples submitted. The goal is to be able to correlate the crop data directly to the soil, management practices etc. to benefit other growers who desire to grow quality crops. That data is still being processed.

Proving there is variation in crop quality was successful and so data collection in 2019 added lettuce, cherry tomatoes, grapes and kale in addition to more spinach and carrot samples.

Given the current state of agriculture: insecticides, fungicides and simplistic N-P-K fertilizer, it is crystal clear the amount of balanced nutrition in our food is lacking.

Moving forward calibrations are being completed on the first consumer-focused handheld tool to put the power of making purchasing decisions in the consumers hands.

CSI is supporting Dan Kittredge and the BFA as a sponsor as well as being a collaborator to seek out specific crop farms to submit samples from when asked. We feel this is the first step in teaching growers and consumers the benefits of growing and consuming healthy food. Most importantly as a grower, producing high quality nutrient-dense food will warrant a premium on price, growers get paid for what they grow (nutritive value) instead of how much (bushels or lbs.) The consumer will have the tool to make the choice; do they buy the carrot that scores “20” for $2/lb or the carrots that score “80” for $6/lb, knowing from a food benefit standpoint the more expensive carrots have 5-10 times the levels of nutrition, antioxidants, polyphenols, etc.? To those who chose to afford it, it is truly a no-brainer. The plans are to have it in consumers hands by early 2020 according to the BFA website.
The beauty of this entire model is that all data, results, etc. are established up on a Open-Data platform, meaning this is a collaborative effort. This means no one person or organization owns the data. This information, data, etc. cannot be purchased or sold. The BFA has partnered with Cornell University, University of Montana, Penn State University, Ohio State University, Washington State University, the Health Research Institute and an advisory board loaded with PhDs to validate the findings and ensure success.

Given proper funding, the BioNutrient Spectrometer will have a huge impact on the way consumers purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. As a producer, this meter could be implemented to determine the effectiveness of different methods of managing soil and plants and ultimately growing quality food.

For more information, to see results, or to make a donation please visit the BioNutrient Food Association’s website.

NOTE: I was fortunate enough to present at this conference in 2016, and have attended this conference as an exhibitor every year since. The next conference is Nov.14-17, 2019 in Southbridge, MA. I strongly encourage anyone to attend. The presenter lineup is always top-notch, facility is great, the attendees are awesome. If you cannot make the conference, the BFA shares the audio only presentations on their website shortly after the conference ends.