How modern food webs impact nutrition

Oct 5, 2021

Fruits and vegetables can provide variety in modern diets.

Dr. Stefani Crabtree, an Environment and Society professor at USU, recently published research comparing ancient and modern human nutrition. Crabtree’s research focused on large-scale shifts in human nutrition at the population level which, she acknowledged, might not capture the diversity of diets among individual humans.

"There honestly is still quite a lot of variance in the human diet globally," Crabtree said.

To learn more about what the narrowing of food webs means for nutrition on an individual level, I spoke with Dr. Carrie Durward, a Nutrition Specialist with USU Extension.

She said that in the 1800s, as more people moved to urban centers and had to rely more heavily on industrial agriculture, vitamin deficiencies such as scurvy and rickets became more prevalent. Artificial synthesis of vitamins in the early- to mid-1900s fortified staple foods, and these diseases became rare.

Now, chronic problems like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes have become public health issues. Durward said, while we don’t fully understand the causes of these health problems, poor nutrition is likely a factor.

"So we know about calories and carbohydrates, and protein, and fat, and vitamins and minerals. So we know about all those things. And we can make sure that our diets get enough of those. But there are a lot of things in food that we are still learning about. And we don't understand the health benefits," Durward said.

Just as people in the past were unaware of vitamins, there may be other healthful components of whole foods that are undiscovered. With the lack of diversity in modern urban diets, Durward said trying to eat a variety of foods is a great nutritional goal. Fruits and vegetables are one of the few places in our modern food system where we still have a lot of diversity.