Over the last few months, I’ve been getting a LOT of questions about “nutrient dense foods,” “bionutrients,” BRIX and the “Albrecht method.” All of these refer more or less to a similar set or practices, professional consultation services and amendment products. Because people trust Lillie House as an honest source of research and information, some have asked what my take is, whether it’s a research-based approach, or whether it makes economic sense for farmers or gardeners. Others have asked why it is that we don’t use rock dust, or micronutrient amendments, or advocate for nutrient dense foods.
These are all good honest questions, but I’ve been reluctant to answer them beyond saying that Kim and I looked into it a decade or so back, initially found it very compelling, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for us. The adhearants of the “Nutrient Dense Food Movement” are very passionate, and I’d rather find myself in a debate against Monsanto and industrial Ag than people who just want to heal their land and provide better food.
But, what if the claims are true? What if we have some ethical obligation to “remineralize the earth?” What if these techniques really are the key to eliminiating diseases, healing ecosystems, reducing pesticide use, growing more food on less land? Given the boldness of the claims, I can see why adherents are so passionate! And, if these claims are true, then growers (like me) who aren’t doing this program are arguably negligent to both their land and customers! And if these claims are true, I would be negligent to not be advising my own students and design clients to follow this kind of program! So, with such dramatic claims on the table, I feel I must do my “due dilligence” and look into whether or not they are true.
(As a summary, I believe that there is not good evidence to support these claims. These techniques are just not necessary for regenerating the land or growing healthy, nutrient dense food. I do not believe these techniques (including rock dusts or micronutrient fertilizers) are sustainable, that they increase carbon sequestration, or that they are a reliable or economically viable way to increase micronutrient or “bionutrient” density of foods, or that they increase crop health or productivity. Instead, I propose a set of affordable research-based techniques that can help for those who are interested in increasing the nutrition of their produce.)
The High Brix Claims
The Brix movement and its consultants make a number of claims that fit together neatly in an attractive logical syllogism (this is one of the reasons I initially found it so compelling). So, let’s first lay out some of those general claims, then we’ll go through and see what science and research says about them.
1. Depleted soils (usually said to be depleted due to agricultural use) are a root cause of global illnesses, both in humans, and in our crop plants (and animals.) Nutrient-depleted soils mean nutrient-depleted plants mean nutrient-depleted humans. Logical! The focus is on micronutrients, rather than the macronutrients emphasized by scientific horticulture.
2. Special soil amendments can “remineralize agricultural soils” to provide missing micronutrients, or in some cases to provide a special “ideal” or “balanced” soil micronutrient profile. These amendments may include special micronutrient fertilizers, and rock dusts, and sometimes “humic acids,” “humates” or biochar. Sometimes these are said to create “soil vitality.”
Sometimes additional practices such as seed size or specially named tilling tools are recommended. (We’ll look at a couple of these.)
3. This causes improved yields and resistance to crop pests and diseases.
4. And it causes “nutrient dense foods, or foods “loaded with bionutrients.”
5. Such foods taste better to humans and ensure improved marketability.
6. A refractometer of other tools can be used to measure “brix,” which can be used as a measure of nutrient density, “bionutrients” and crop quality/taste.
7. This can be the basis of a “Regenerative Agriculture” or the way to set up “Regenerative Agriculture Systems.”
As an argument it seems to make sense! It’s certainly true and well-known that agriculture depletes soil macronutrients, which is why fertilizers are necessary. And since we don’t generally fertilize with micronutrients, perhaps these get depleted, too? It’s also true that food nutrition such as protein content has been declining over recent centuries and decades. We also know it’s true that deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, copper, or iron can have well-known human health impacts, and that deficiencies in soils have historically been the cause of regional health impacts, such as with iodine and goiter.
Assessing the Claims
So, let’s look at the specific claims and see what researchers have to say.
1. Are our soils deficient in micronutrients and are micronutrient-deficient soils causing human illness? Multiple studies have directly evaluated this claim and found that, no, levels of micronutrients in foods are not generally declining so much as a few key nutrients like protein. [Mineral nutrient composition of vegetables, fruits and grains, Robin J.Marles] And soil micronutrient deficiencies are not the cause of those declines. Plant selection, lower soil organic matter, and use of nitrogen fertilizer (in addition to greater carbon in the atmosphere) have been found to cause lower nutrient levels in food. Furthermore, in many temperate soils, micronutrient deficiencies are very rare. [Secondary and Micro-nutrients for Vegetable and Field Crops, M.L. Vitosh] While this paper is on Michigan soils, this is true throughout the Great Lakes region as well as generally throughout temperate climates where parent materials were very recently ground into “rock dust” by glaciers just around 9,000 years ago. If you look through this list of micronutrients, you’ll see in the cases where there are problems this is usually due either to a lack of bio-available nutrients, or from an imbalance of the sort that is corrected through compost and increasing soil biological activity.
And, are widespread micronutrient deficiencies responsible for human illness? No, many such deficiencies are well-understood and easily diagnosed. Instead, current research is looking at exposure to plastics and toxins, over-reliance on grains and meats, and lack of microbial biodiversity as factors in the “diseases of civilization.”
2. The next set of common claims are that certain amendments can improve soil micronutrient levels compared to regular organic growing and use of compost. First, this has been evaluated by researchers, in many studies and found to be lacking, except in depleted tropical “old” soils. But because Albecrecht method consultants have long claimed a broad conspiracy against their teacher among scientists, I also included this video of high quality citizen science, where a youtube gardener tested rock dusts and compared them to local fall leaves. The leaves contained more macronutrients, and more bioavailable micronutrients than the rock dust. Unsurprisingly, the leaves also had more of the micronutrients most necessary for healthy plant growth, in the amounts they are necessary for healthy plant tissues. As long asserted by Rodale research, compost, tree leaves and organic mulches provide all the micronutrients that plants need.
3. There’s an “ideal” or “balanced” micronutrient profile for optimum growth and nutrient density. This was a key idea of the Alberecht method, which has been thoroughly discredited by soil scientists. But it is also directly opposed to theory and research on both ecology and terroir. Plants evolved to fill different niches, including different soil micronutrient profiles. For an obvious example, desert or mediterranean soils would be considered deficient from an Albrecht perspective. Yet, they would be far more ideal to growing crops like prickly pear cactus, or culinary herbs like oregano or lavender. Research has found that culinary herbs actually have a HIGHER nutrient density when grown on depleted soils, rather than those which hold water better. Indeed amending the soil to create an “ideal” soil, would mean decreasing both the health and nutrient density of these crops. The same has been found to be true of tree crops, and fruits including grapes and tomatoes. This is part of the explanation for why soil characteristics have been proven to be a part of the special regional taste qualities known as “terroir,” which means “soil.” [Soil-related terroir factors: A review,Van Leeuwen] “Correcting” the nutrient profiles of such famous terroir soils to make them “ideal” would mean eliminating the thing that makes them special and ideal for their famous crops!
4. Humates can add to nutrient density. There is no such thing as humates. Researchers have discovered that they were making humates in the experiments where they were measuring them, and that they do not actually exist in soil. Humates are just expensive brands of regular compost, often with lower levels of active macronutrients.
5. Biochar can add to nutrient density. Researchers have found that in temperate climates and soils, biochar (even “activated biochar”) does not have an effect on garden performance. [Biochar boosts tropical but not temperate crop yields, Jeffery] I will say instead that they do not have a RELIABLE effect, and that it is not well understood yet. So it’s not surprising that this Youtube gardener found the same in his experiment. However, activated biochar, when produced as a byproduct, does sequester soil carbon to help mitigate climate change. And it may indeed be worth experimenting with to improve garden performance, especially on poor soils. But I wouldn’t expect it to be a guaranteed approach.
6. All this creates “soil vitality.” This is just a marketing term and does not have a scientific definition. It appears to be used to say these techniques will create special soil qualities that aren’t measurable with scientific methods. I would be skeptical.
7. Seed selection (usually larger or “more vital looking” seed) has an impact on growth. This has been found in multiple studies to not be true. [Effects of the size of sown seed on growth and yield of common bean cultivars of different seed sizes. Lima] Since there are no reliable results, seed selection is not considered a good way to increase garden ROI, and only increases costs and time inputs.
8. These techniques increase the nutrient density of foods. Researchers have tested this and found that they cannot measure any increases in nutrient density by using these methods. Again, it’s not surprising that our Youtuber had the same outcome when he tested the theory in his garden and found no difference in nutrient density between test, biochar, and rock dust.
9. A refractometer can be used to measure and demonstrate nutrient density. This has again been tested by researchers and proven to be false. While some measures of nutrition do correlate with brix, others do not. Brix measures solids, mostly sugars, and does not reliably correlate with the nutrition or healthfulness of a food. There are other factors which are more likely correlated with the healthfulness of food.
10. These nutrient dense foods taste better to humans. While we’ve already seen that these techniques do not correlate with increased nutrient density, it’s also untrue that nutrient dense foods taste better to people. While this has been assessed scientifically, it’s also just as easy to understand without the science. Many of our crops are specifically grown to avoid “nutrient density.” For example, lettuces, which taste crispier and sweeter with more water and less “nutrients,” and tend to get bitter and tough as they develop more “nutrient density.” The same may be true of cucumbers, pungent vegetables, mustards and other leafy greens which are more tender and less bitter with a higher water content.
“But, I tasted the difference myself!” Often, this is demonstrated by comparing a garden-grown tomato or fruit to a grocery store variety. Of course the home-grown tastes better and has a higher brix reading. Case closed! But the grocery store version was picked green, before it had the opportunity to develop its full sugar content (brix) and ripened after shipping. Meanwhile, your home-grown was probably kept on the vine to peak ripeness, allowing it to develop more sugars, better taste, and a higher brix.
11. “These techniques are the basis for a Regenerative Agriculture” or “Permaculture.” There’s no certification or legal definition of Regenerative Agriculture, so I suppose it’s fair to make that claim. But generally, what people mean by “Regenerative” is that it is “beyond sustainable,” a system that actually grows better over time. For that reason, most systems of Regenerative Agriculture make use of natural systems, ecological succession, syntropy, and other features that use “syntropy” to get grow in diversity, embodied energy and biomass over time. Taken alone, none of the techniques above will have an impact on the measurable health of an ecosystem. In fact, in most cases, the mining, soil testing and preparation methods in nutrient dense growing are not even sustainable, let alone regenerative.
So, it appears there’s not a lot of research basis for these claims.
And while there’s certainly a risk they will hurt your soil by causing micronutrient imbalances or contaminating your growing area with dangerous heavy metals, these risks are probably low. However, I still do not personally recommend it, because of the unsustainable mining sourcing of many of the products sold by nutrient density experts. And because it’s simply not a very good investment, either for improving garden value or healing the earth or people.
In the end, there’s no shortcut to replacing the value of a healthy diverse ecosystem, good soil organic matter, good old fashioned skill and knowledgeable growing.
An Alternative Program for High Nutrient Produce
So, if growing more nutrient dense food is your primary goal, are there steps we can take with a proven effect? Yes. When it comes to creating REAL nutrient dense food that’s more resistant to disease and pest issues, these are often the keys to a research-based approach.
1. Keep and use heirloom selections. Heirloom varieties have been found to be more nutritious in multiple studies than modern varieties cultivated for wide distribution. Some heirlooms, such as dark colored varieties may contain more nutrients.
2. Save seeds: Your own locally adapted seeds will be better at thriving in your biome. This is certainly of higher value than a vendor claiming to have “more vital looking” seeds.
3. Mulch heavily with organic mulches, including tree leaves, and increase soil organic matter content and biological activity, such as by using compost. In addition to creating a more optimal environment for nutrient uptake and water availability, this is a more research-based method for increasing soil biological/microbial activity than things like expensive seed inoculations.
4. Avoid nitrogen fertilizers, which have been demonstrated to reduce crop nutrition in multiple studies. Eliminate pesticide use, which reduces the healthfulness of foods. Reduce and minimize use of agricultural plastics where possible, as these too have been found to decrease the healthfulness of foods.
5. Invest in biodiversity through polyculture and guilds, and through installations like hedgerows, diversity strips, and forest gardens as a research-based ways to reduce pest and disease pressures. This is also a theoretically valid way to really increase the healthfulness of food, which has a research basis in the diversity/resiliency principle and the hygiene-theory of immunology. While the relationship is still being proven, doctors are already putting this science to work to heal their patients in several novel treatments.
6. Avoid tilling, even with tools like a “tilther” or horrow.
7. Study smart Biointensive or French Intensive gardening as an old-fashioned, research-based approach to growing a complete high-nutrition diet, that’s economically viable and also sustainable. This includes learning good organic horticulture, such as putting the right plant in the right place (lavender in sandy soil) and appropriately feeding and watering crops (like not overwatering or overfertilizing those tomatoes or tree fruits.)
8. For large properties, smart Permaculture zone analysis combining economically feasible agroforestry systems with GrowBiointensive business models are probably the best bet for profitible management.
These aren’t a magic silver bullet, just good old fashioned clever growing. But they are steps that are proven to have a better Return on Investment both financially and ecologically.