How Smart People Change Their Minds

We are pleased to have Jack Bobo, author of “Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices, write for Dirt to Dinner. Jack was CEO of Futurity Food, a company working with organizations to understand governmental policy decisions around agriculture and how consumers make decisions on their food. Jack was Senior Advisor for the State Department’s Global Food Policy and then worked for Intrexon Corporation (now Precigen) as Chief Communications Officer. 

Everyone Is Above Average

Ask yourself this question: Are you an above-average driver? If you are like most people, you answered in the affirmative.

In a famous study, researchers asked people to compare their driving ability to others, requiring them to rate themselves as above average, average or below average. I don’t think anyone was surprised to learn that more than 80 percent of respondents said they were above average. (For what it’s worth, I think of myself as an above-average driver too.) While that outcome may be mathematically impossible, it is also pretty consistent with what we know of human behavior.

If you think it’s hard to find someone who thinks they are an average driver, imagine how hard it would be to find someone who believes they are a below-average driver.

I’m not sure such a person exists. Such self-awareness would be crushing to the soul for most of us.

Findings like these are easy to laugh at, mostly because it is hard for most of us to imagine that we might be one of those misguided individuals who are wrong about their driving skills.

But remember,one in three drivers who think they are above-average is wrong. Their brains just don’t want to admit it.

Our hubris is not limited to our automotive skills…

Most people think they are above-average at most things. Studies show that people rate themselves as above-average in creativity, intelligence, dependability, athleticism, honesty, friendliness, and so on.

Provide people with a survey about almost any positive trait, and the vast majority will rate themselves above average. Social psychologists call it the better-than-average effect.

Intellectual Humility

What does this have to do with food, you might be wondering? As it turns out, quite a lot.

The more confident we are in the decisions we make, the less likely we are to stop and question those decisions. Even if we do take the occasional break to contemplate the possibility that we are suffering from bias, we assume that we are less likely than others to be biased.

So what are we to do?

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos sat atop one of the most successful companies of our time as well as a personal fortune of some $200 billion. I think we can all agree that by most definitions the guy is pretty smart. But you don’t run one of the largest companies in the world by yourself, no matter how smart you are. You have to surround yourself with other smart people who can help make your vision a reality.

Bezos doesn’t just look for intelligent people or people who are right most of the time. For him, that is only half of the equation. He also looks for people who can admit they are wrong and who change their opinions when the situation demands. He finds that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding and reconsidering problems they thought they had already solved. Unlike many of us who are fixed in our views, the smartest people, according to Bezos, are open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

That willingness to consider new information goes hand in hand with a willingness to admit that your old way of thinking was flawed. In other words—and this is the interesting part—to be super smart, you have to change your mind a lot. Bezos apparently agrees with essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously declared, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Consistency is overrated. Bezos believes it is perfectly healthy  to have a new idea tomorrow that contradicts the idea you hold today.

The Strength of Humility

Modern science agrees with both Bezos and Emerson. Psychologists refer to this flexibility of mind as “intellectual humility.” Studies of decision-making show that people who are more willing to entertain the idea that they might be wrong made markedly better choices.

Rather than thinking of being wrong as a sign of stupidity or ignorance, we should see it as a sign of curiosity, openness to new information, and, ultimately, intelligence. In an increasingly complicated world, the willingness to revise our views is more critical than ever.

In the food sphere, we are inundated with information from every direction promising cures for all manner of ills, from superfoods that protect us from disease to diets that help us live long and happy lives.

The latest scientific discoveries are amplified by the news and social media and then twisted and distorted until they bear little resemblance to the actual findings of the scientists who conducted the research.

In this way, nutrition studies showing vague associations between some food, ingredient, or supplement and heart health in mice are promoted on the news and on social media as critical findings for public health or even miracle cures.

Good science travels quickly, but inflated or dubious information travels at the speed of light. Technology makes it easier to amplify and spread questionable information incredibly fast.

To guard against false and misleading information, we need to be both curious and intellectually humble.

Open Minds

I imagine many readers nodding along with the advice that we should be intellectually humble and that we should change our minds when we learn new facts.

If I posed the question, “Do you consider yourself open-minded,” what would you say? I imagine that nearly 100 percent of readers would agree that they are open-minded. That’s the kind of person who reads an article like this, after all.

Now ask yourself: When was the last time you changed your mind? Was it last week, last month, or maybe last year? Could it be that you can’t actually remember the last time you changed your mind about something important?

Mark Lynas, a British environmentalist and author changed his mind about GMOs. Formerly, he was a Greenpeace activist against GMOs. Once he started reviewing peer-reviewed scientific papers and learned about the facts around GMOs, he changed his mind. He wrote about his journey in his book, ‘Seeds of Science, How we got it wrong on GMOs’.

In a 2018 interview with Massive Science, he stated, Well, I’m pretty much alone in terms of anyone changing their minds about anything significant! It’s quite a rare thing to happen.

All of this begs the question, “Is it possible to be open-minded if you never change your mind?”

When we were children, we were exposed to new ideas and experiences all the time, and we frequently changed our minds as a result. We were encouraged to do so. In high school and college, we were taught to challenge our assumptions and to ask questions of ourselves and others. Instead of being given the answers, we learned how to seek out knowledge. Changing our minds was a sign of growth and development.

But eventually, we grow up and find a career. Our circle of friends becomes fixed. Perhaps we get married, have children and settle down. Whether it happens in our twenties, thirties or forties, at some point the rate at which we change our minds begins to slow and, for some, to practically stop. Rather than spend time searching for knowledge that challenges our beliefs, we look for facts that support or defend them.

Confirmation bias allows us to convince ourselves that we have carefully considered or fully vetted new ideas before we reject them.

As Bishop Oldham wrote in 1906, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

The above quotation is often attributed to philosopher and psychologist William James, but just because the internet says he said it, doesn’t make it so.

As we get older, it becomes less comfortable to change our minds because we have become so invested in our old beliefs. We have surrounded ourselves with people who believe the same things that we believe. Our jobs may even depend on, or be a reflection of, our beliefs. This means there would be a cost associated with changing our minds. Better to hang on to a silly belief than to give up on an important friendship. Too often, we choose habit and comfort over growth and knowledge.

Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

There are a lot of strongly held beliefs in the food world. It only takes a few minutes on social media to find people with views on pretty much everything. Some people swear by the Keto Diet, others are followers of Atkins. Clean eating is still the rage among many, while believers in cleanses and intermittent fasting are only too eager to share the latest research supporting their dietary choices.

Following a diet or way of eating that works for you is not the problem. There are many ways of eating a healthy and nutritious diet, though we need to keep in mind that for a diet to work it must work not only for days, weeks and months, but for a lifetime. For many, diets are like fashion—they change with the seasons.

So how do we open ourselves to new information without getting swept up in the latest fad?

Rather than throw up our hands and give up on finding real solutions, the answer may be to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” This is the advice of futurist Bob Johansen from the Institute for the Future. Strongly held opinions give us the confidence to be decisive and make important decisions. Weakly held opinions are equally important because that means you are not too attached to what you believe. Being too attached to ideas undermines our ability to see and hear evidence that conflicts with our opinions.

While Jeff Bezos may think of flexibility of the mind as a trait of the smartest people, it reminds me of the difference between smart people and wise people. Smart people are those who know a lot, but nonetheless they sometimes make bad choices, because all people sometimes make bad choices. Wise people are those who learn from their mistakes and make better choices going forward. You don’t have to be a genius to be wise.

In the struggle to make better choices, our brains are sometimes working against us. Our biases often lead us in the wrong direction, particularly when it comes to food. Fortunately, we can do something about that. My book, Why smart people make bad food choices? lays out many of the ways our brains trick and mislead us. Awareness of these biases and cognitive errors will greatly reduce the mischief that they cause in your life.

Jupiter Ridge: Regenerative Stewards of the Land

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Nestled on a bluff atop a 1,200-foot-high ridge in Iowa, surrounded by dense forest, Jupiter Ridge Farm is an ideal landscape for growing all types of mushrooms, vegetables, and perennial flowers.

The Importance of Regenerative Agriculture

Will and Adrian farm on land leased to them by the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). The land was donated to SILT by Steve Beaumont (on far right in above photo). To farm here, Jupiter Ridge – and all SILT farmers and ranchers – are required to have third-party certification to affirm that their agricultural practices are regeneratively grown.

For Jupiter Ridge, this means applying environmentally-responsible growing methods, like healthy soil building, cover cropping, crop rotation, compost amending, using all-natural fertilizers, and minimizing chemical use for pesticides.

These measures ensure that their farming practices give back to the land in some way. As Will explains, they are only temporary stewards for this land, and they will eventually pass it along to another farmer. It is critical that their operation continues to improve the soil, making sure it is full of nutrients and microbes.

It’s important to note that the term, “regenerative agriculture”, does not have any globally definitive guidelines that state whether one operation is effectively regenerative or not.

But operations like Jupiter Ridge use these farming practices to make real and lasting changes.

When we asked Will and Adrian why regenerative ag was important to them, they did not hesitate in their response:

“We are honored to be able to grow whole, healthful food for our community while ensuring the sustenance of those who eat it, but also the health of the land it came from.

We have always felt a ‘beyond organic’ spirit when it comes to farming, taking it a step further and always making sure we’re putting life and health back into the soil after every crop.”

– Will Lorentzen, Adrian White

By cover cropping and crop rotation, Jupiter Ridge re-injects micronutrients back into the soil. Rather than ripping up the root system after every harvest, rotational planting allows them to nourish the soil with a variety of new nutrients. Furthermore, cover cropping provides protection against soil erosion, maintains healthy topsoil, suppresses weeds, and deter pests.

This promotes biodiversity and ultimately reduces soil compaction, allowing for better CO2 sequestration in the root system.

Regenerative Ag Practices

At Jupiter Ridge, Will and Adrian don’t just farm mushrooms, they also grow a variety of vegetables and perennial flowers. They believe this not only promotes soil health but encourages large pollinator habitats on the native prairie lands to thrive and expand.  Will explains that by applying regenerative farming practices like planting perennials, it can increase biodiversity, and ultimately serves as a tool on the farm.

“If there is wildlife flourishing around our farm every year — monarch butterflies, beneficial pollinators, pest predators — then we feel we’ve done a good job, too.”

– Adrian White

 “If you look at studies and research, the health of the soil is directly tied to the actual health of the plant foods that grow in it. Abundant soil life is critical for adequate nutrient uptake into fruits, vegetables, etc.”

Will continued, adding that with soil health comes flexibility, explaining that resilient soil allows them to keep their products and production methods varied. Healthy soil increases water absorption to protect against droughts.  This flexibility, he says, is imperative in an ever-changing world.

One of the coolest things to see on the farm are the tangible results of these efforts: when farmers help the land, the land then helps farmers.

“We had a pest problem take care of itself this year with no needed actions taken from us because of the flourishing perennial environment. Soldier beetles that thrive in the surrounding prairies fed on the pest and took care of the job! If we didn’t grow sustainably or regeneratively, this wouldn’t have happened,” Adrian White commented.

Measuring the Success of their Hard Work

While the most formal method of measuring success in regenerative ag is to measure carbon sequestration, Jupiter Ridge has identified other ways to realize the effects of its regenerative practices. With carbon sequestration measurements not yet scalable and mainstream, Jupiter Ridge measures their increased yields, decreased inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, as well as increased resiliency of the crop — like in the example of the soldier beetles.

“The subjective feedback we get is from our customers. Returning customers, chefs, and CSA members say it all—they want more of the quality food we grow, which keeps them coming back. If people are pleased with the quality, beauty, and flavor of the food we grow, then we feel we’ve grown regenerative food very effectively.”

“We also use responsible forestry techniques to source the logs for our shiitake and other mushroom production. We also use things from off the waste stream as much as possible.

We’re also planting more and more perennial crops each year that require less maintenance and tillage. Some of our practices are sustainability requirements in our one-of-a-kind land lease with SILT and encourage good soil erosion prevention techniques.”

 Challenges and Misperceptions to the Operation

Farming regeneratively does not come without its challenges. Will and Adrian both note that the timing and terminating of their cover crops is difficult. Furthermore, perennial crops are expensive when they are not sold. He points out that growing regeneratively demands labor, time, and investment.

“Even if people can charge more for regenerative to compensate for their labor and time, the process of making a considerable profit margin is far more challenging than most other businesses.”

While Will and Adrian don’t think that any misperceptions exist at this early stage in regenerative ag, they want people to know that it is more than a buzzword. It is a way of connecting eco-friendly farming practices to climate change and soil health.  This, they believe, is another incredible and impactful step in the sustainable movement to better our world.

But so much of what goes on at a farm is invisible to the consumer, leaving many of us out of touch. That’s why Jupiter Ridge supports ongoing traceability efforts and believes the best way to know where your food comes from is to shop local. An added benefit? Regenerative operations are often started without immediate financial rewards, so shopping directly from the farm helps to offset these financial burdens.

Why Are Shelves Empty? Ask A Trucker

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Transportation is the common thread tying together every step of our modern supply chain, from dirt to dinner. It provides the mechanism for a smooth flow from one link in the chain to the next, speeding the astounding process of converting commodities into the finished food products we consume each day. Trucks, river barges, massive ocean vessels, railroads, even airplanes all play a vital role in the uninterrupted flow of our food.

Trucking is a $732 billion industry that employs almost six percent of the U.S. workforce, with an estimated 3.6 million professional drivers, 2 million over-the-road drivers, 1.5 million in local delivery and transport, and support staff of 8 million.

An invisible thread

But as essential as all modes of transportation are to our food security, it’s far too easy for each transportation element, like trucking, to remain largely invisible, taken for granted because of its historic quiet competence and compliance in fulfilling its food-chain role.

At least, it was until Covid came on the scene and changed everything. Suddenly, the supply chain simply didn’t operate with its usual ballet-like choreography. The trucking system is front and center in any effort to understand how our supply chain operates, especially for the food we need for our families.

Just consider the sheer size of these numbers:

  • The U.S. transportation system moved about 51 million tons of goods valued at $51.8 billion every day prior to the pandemic, almost 57 tons for every U.S. resident per year.
  • Trucks move the majority of all freight, with estimates from 40 to as high as 72 percent of the total, according to the American Trucking Association.
  • Agricultural freight – from raw commodities to finished food products – measured 4.5 billion tons, worth $3.1 trillion dollars, in 2018. 80 percent of all agricultural freight is shipped on trucks.

Behind the dizzying assortment of facts and figures, the trucking industry faces a whole host of challenges – many dating far beyond the pandemic. If anything, Covid merely poured gasoline – or maybe diesel fuel – on a fire that already was burning within the industry. The source of the fire: problems with attracting people willing and able to do the demanding job of piloting the sometimes massive and specialized machinery – and living the lifestyle that it demands.

“It’s always the truck”

My local grocery store manager responded to a customer unhappy with the lack of a particular product with a very simple explanation: “I’m sorry. But the truck never came in… It’s always the truck.”

The problem wasn’t a lack of a truck. Equipment isn’t the issue at all, according to most industry observers. Store shelves go empty and ocean vessels clog major ports often for the same reason: because there’s no truck – or more accurately, no truck driver — to move the cargoes along. It’s a shortage of the people trained for what can be a very tough job – and a rapidly aging set of current driving professionals.

Long before Covid, the trucking industry struggled to match the rising demand for freight movement with enough drivers. The average age for professional drivers is about 55, according to The American Trucking Association (ATA) and other industry and government estimates. That’s about a decade older than the average age for other comparable industries. And many of those are giving up on the job early, tired of the demands of the job and the constant fight for compensation and benefits.

In addition to being older, truck drivers are most likely to be male (93 percent) and white (77 percent, compared to 23 percent Hispanic/Latin, 17 percent African American, 4 percent Asian).

Before Covid, the shortage of drivers was widely estimated at 60,000 jobs. With Covid, the gap widened to 80,000, and industry experts like ATA’s Chief Economist Bob Costello project the shortage could double to 160,000 in a decade.

Many sacrifices to consider

There’s no one reason for the shortage, but rather many. It begins with the realities of over-the-road trucking. The job demands long hours – up to 14 hours, with maybe 11 behind the wheel and the remainder doing paperwork, basic maintenance, minor repairs and other chores. In most situations, as an Over-The-Road (“OTR”) driver, you are capped at 60 hours total in seven days, 70 hours in eight days, then required to take 34 hours off. Expanding regulatory requirements grow more complex almost every year, from both federal and state agencies, with extensive record-keeping and strict compliance with substance-abuse protections.

Long hours with little movement and stress contribute to serious health issues, too.

OTR drivers suffer from higher-than-average rates of obesity and diabetes.

Smoking rates also are higher, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned that drivers face a higher-than-average risk of Covid infection.

Beyond these health concerns, trucking remains a dangerous profession – the seventh most fatal profession in the United States, with about 1,000 deaths annually, or roughly one-fifth of all workplace fatalities.

Government figures from before the pandemic show truckers are 6.5 times more likely to be killed in job-related accidents than the average worker.

Long hauls also mean long, lonely periods away from home and family, unpredictable food and the stress that comes from knowing you are piloting a vehicle weighing up to 80,000 pounds at speeds of 60 mph on roadways where not all drivers are professional, or all weather conditions perfect.

Drivers have the second-highest divorce rate of any industry – better than 40 percent. Like other high-stress professions, OTR drivers are not immune from the dangers of alcoholism and substance abuse, and the industry and regulators combat the risk aggressively.

Which road to choose

Drivers also must choose what kind of driving to do. A commercial driver’s license – or “CDL” – is mandatory, and special license classes may be needed to haul specific cargoes. Local delivery services often demand less investment of time and money in training, and short-haul jobs help improve time at home but generally pay less. Specialized certificates – for hauling food-grade and environment-controlled cargoes or hazardous materials, for example, demand special training, often well beyond the basic training of up to six or seven weeks.

You likely begin your career making something on the order of $43,000 – maybe more in select areas like the northeast, even less in some others like the mid-south. Over time, the median salary will rise if you are patient and stay at the job with an established freight or trucking company, rising to $70,000 or more. Much higher compensation packages are possible, notably for specialized and highly-trained drivers.

Drivers who own and operate their own vehicle also can make more money – but must accept the higher risks that come with it, including higher costs for fuel, insurance, equipment maintenance, benefits, and other costs of doing business. It’s not surprising to see an extraordinarily high turnover rate for drivers – estimated by the industry at 90 percent per year – as drivers constantly seek out better, more rewarding opportunities with other trucking firms, strike out on their own, shift to less demanding careers, or simply go home and hope for more Covid relief funds.

So what’s to be done?

Despite the many reasons to be pessimistic, the trucking industry seems to remain surprisingly optimistic about the future – often for some surprising reasons.

One is the simple allure of the job to many. Few other professions offer comparable opportunities to fulfill a common sense of rugged individualism and independence or to satisfy the allure of the open road. More important, drivers repeatedly cite the importance of the role they play in serving important needs. They, perhaps, recognize the value of the supply chain in modern life, even if they don’t express it in abstract terms.

The American public seems to appreciate the role they play, too.  A survey by an organization known as “Trucking Moves America Forward” found that two-thirds of respondents have a “high regard” for truckers and the industry. Trucking professionals take pride in being widely known as “the Knights of the Open Road.”

Adding to that spirit, the fading effects of Covid may prove highly beneficial.

The economy is beginning to revive, with more jobs and robust consumer demand once again on the table. People seem ready to get back to work, especially as relief payments from the federal government fade into memory.

The industry seems eager to tap into this spirit to recruit new and younger drivers, with aggressive training and education programs and career promotion.

Also, simple economics have to be considered. To get more of something, economic theory goes, offer more. The industry must deal with the need to generate a compensation system more in line with the demands and expectations for pay, benefits and other forms of compensation of a workforce of the size and quality it knows it needs now and will need in the future. For consumers, this means a willingness to accept another element of the inflationary pressures that drive up prices for all goods – including food.

The industry also is working with the government to address concerns about the effect of well-intentioned but extensive regulatory requirements (such as more detailed, electronic record-keeping, and increased substance testing) that deter many prospects. Efforts to promote driving as an attractive career for women also are gaining traction, with the proportion of female drivers among some of the more established freight and trucking enterprises rising sharply, to as much as 20 percent in some instances. Driving teams also appear to be growing in number, including husband-wife combos.

The autonomous future

Automation also has emerged as a major area for attention by industry and government alike. Amazing technological progress has led to pioneering examples of self-directed transportation mechanisms, including some successful truck piloting systems.

Improvements in automation would create meaningful efficiencies with some of our largest trade partners.

Trucks ferry the overwhelming majority of our exports to Canada (68 percent) and Mexico (83 percent). Likewise, the majority of our imports also arrive via trucks from Canada (59 percent) and Mexico (72 percent).

Those technology-based solutions won’t provide an immediate answer to the question of what to do about today’s driver and overall labor shortage. Pew Research in 2017 found that fully half of all Americans have some degree of worry about driverless vehicles. Serious questions about safety and reliability remain to be resolved to the satisfaction of demanding legislatures and oversight agencies. But that work is underway, with developmental work for passenger cars and trucks moving along twin tracks.

Much of the attention centers on the degree of automation to build into vehicles. Prototypes generally have five different levels of automation, from simple driver assistance with tasks such as parking, all the way to complete control of the vehicle – a true driverless car or truck. Various automated features already at work in equipment in warehouses and other relatively low-risk environments, and companies such as Volvo and Tesla have made significant progress in turning the idea of vehicle driving automation into reality.

Automated driving features have expanded rapidly, with more than 31 million vehicles (out of roughly 289 million vehicles on the road) in 2019 having some level of automation.  It’s already a $32 billion industry, with projected growth rates of 15 percent or more.

Innovative applications of artificial intelligence and automation promise to play a significant role in finding a long-term solution to the labor issue confronting the trucking industry.

And none the least, supply chain specialists and the trucking industry ask for a little understanding and accommodation. Each segment of the food chain should look for ways to help the trucking industry – and every part of the transportation system – deal with the shortage of people and the resulting complications. Let’s find ways to smooth out the twists in the chain as best we can, as we work through the bigger, thornier issues.

5 Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Whether you’re looking for quick information, or want something to impress your friends at dinner, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

Happy Valentine’s Day! If there’s one thing we love about this holiday, it’s all the chocolate. And, although milk chocolate is loaded with sugar, dark chocolate has some health benefits that make us swoon.

1. Vitamins and minerals

Dark chocolate is rich in many important vitamins and minerals. These include fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, and zinc. The darker the chocolate (think 70% or higher), the more nutrients it contains for our benefit!

2. Antioxidants

Dark chocolate is also loaded with antioxidants, especially flavanols. This nutrient is also also found in tea, acai, blueberries, and red wine. Since  flavanols come from the raw cocoa bean, the more processing the chocolate goes through, the fewer flavanols it will have so, try to stick with at least 70% dark chocolate.

3. Improve heart health

Studies have shown that dark chocolate may improve blood flow and decrease one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, thanks to its beneficial flavanol content. To learn more about dark chocolate and heart health, click here.

4. Decrease cholesterol

Another benefit of eating dark chocolate is that it may lower your cholesterol. Studies have shown that dark chocolate and other cocoa products reduced both bad LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and total cholesterol by a significant amount. You only need 1-2 ounces a day to achieve its benefits.

5. It’s a nootropic

What’s a nootropic? They’re known for their “brainpower” effects, and help us to think more efficiently and develop a stronger memory. Many people take them as a supplement, but they’re also found in a lot of the foods we eat every day, including dark chocolate. This is due to the flavanols that help improve blood flow. When blood flow to the brain is increased, it triggers the production of new brain cells, keeping the brain in tip-top shape.

Supplements: Health solution or illusion?

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Lucy adds a powder to her water each afternoon. Hayley and Khala put a scoop in their daily smoothie. Garland swallows his whole. I shake and chug.

Supplements in their many forms – packets, powders, pills, and drinks – crowd our medicine and kitchen cabinets. In fact, in 2021, 87% of us took at least one supplement – an almost 25% increase from 2013, according to Mintel‘s Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements Trends report.

Furthermore, almost a third of us stock up on specialty supplements, like probiotics and powdered veggie blends, many of which come recommended by nutritionists, friends, and our social media feed. But how can we tell if they’re actually doing something?

Does a quick nutrient fix even exist?

And, if so, which type is most bioavailable – or ready for our bodies to absorb and put those nutrients to immediate use? And – here’s the million-dollar question – can they really be as effective as their claims boast, like eating six servings of veggies a day in just three capsules?

I spoke with Dr. Dennis Savaiano, Professor of Nutrition Science and Director of the Purdue Clinical Research Center at Perdue University to get some answers. His knowledge is steeped in nutrition research, including the digestion and absorption of nutrients, and includes conducting numerous trials and peer-reviewed studies in this field.

The interview with Dr. Savaiano brought my brain back down to sea level after succumbing to over-optimism in a quick and easy health solution.

Simply put: there’s no magic elixir for long-term health.

All of these nutrients – vitamins, minerals, and specialty ingredients, like probiotics – require different modes of absorption in our system. As an example, the below chart demonstrates some key differences in vitamin absorption.

More broadly, some nutrients need water, others require fat. Some can only be absorbed when ingested with another nutrient, others may not get absorbed at all and just exit our bodies. Some need to be ingested multiple times a day to be effective, others require very careful dosing.

And, to make matters even more complicated, each one of us has a vastly different digestive system; what is easily absorbed for you may require a different diet or mode of ingestion for me. So when it comes to evaluating effectiveness, it’s pretty hard to make claims like having the best bioavailability on the market when test subject results vary so greatly.

Still hoping for a half-potent elixir? I get it. I have those days when I’m running around like a multi-tasking triathlete and eating anything I happen to stumble into between errands. And I, too, have drank my green drinks, hoping for some corrective measure to magically happen. But here’s the thing: supplements need a balanced diet to be properly absorbed in your body.

“Supplements are meant to be supplementary — meaning they enhance benefits already provided by eating a well-rounded diet.”

– Dr. Jeffrey Millstein, M.D., Internal Medicine at Penn Medicine

Food & fiber as medicine

What’s easier about going straight to the source is that whole foods naturally have the complement of nutrients to maximize nutrient absorption. For instance, many meats have the essential proteins that transport and absorb heme iron, the source of 95% of our body’s functional iron, making the direct source far more effective than taking a pill. And avocadoes, a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, naturally have fat-soluble vitamins E and K – it’s hard to find a better nutritive complement than that.

And another critical differentiator between supplements and food? Fiber.

Fresh produce naturally has fiber that aids in absorbing many key nutrients and is frequently a missing component in supplements. And when you eat a variety of fiber derived from fruits and veggies, your body absorbs nutrients even more efficiently.

More specifically, soluble fiber is particularly effective at slowing down digestion so your intestines have time to absorb more of the nutrients you previously ingested. As opposed to insoluble fiber, soluble fiber dissolves in water and is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and some fruits and veggies.

So if you want your body to get all the vitamins and minerals out of your food, like the ones shown below, be sure to couple them with high-soluble-fiber foods, like oats, black beans, spinach, and pears.

An added benefit of eating more fiber? A boost in the production of T-cells, a key part of our immune system health, including our system’s response to a Covid infection. You can read more about that here.

Bigger picture on health

What can we do right now to make our body ready to absorb more nutrients? Try out Dr. Savaiano’s simple recommendation: start filling half of your plate each meal with whole fruits & veggies (fresh, frozen, and canned are all great options).

When we eat whole foods, especially veggies and fruits, we feel fuller because of its high fiber and water content. We are more likely to reap the benefits of any supplements we take, are less likely to overeat, and, over time, make better dietary decisions.

On the other end of the nutrient-density scale is processed food, which leaves us hungry while nutritionally starving our body. This includes products touted as healthy or wholesome, like yogurt with added sugars, energy or protein bars, granola and granola bars, and really any kind of crunchy snack. When you eat products like these, supplements don’t stay in our body long enough to be properly absorbed. Instead, reach for a handful of nuts, an apple, or sprouted-grain toast topped with some almond butter.

So with a balanced diet, is there still a need for supplements?

High-quality supplements generally can’t hurt when, of course, taken with an already balanced diet.

Supplements can help fill any nutritional gaps that you’re not getting, like vitamin C or magnesium. And if you select your supplements based on the FDA’s nutritional guidelines, keep in mind that many of those daily value recommendations, like the ones seen on nutrition labels, come from dated studies that exclude more recent findings.

For instance, a meta-analysis of over a million Covid patients showed that those who had low vitamin D levels were statistically more likely to end up in the ICU for Covid or have respiratory distress. An increased intake of vitamin C and zinc have also demonstrated decreases in Covid severity, but findings like these have yet to be reflected on our nutrition labels.

If you go the supplement route, try sticking with a no-added-sugar veggie powder-based supplement to accompany your fiber-rich meal so you’re able to ingest both water- and fat-soluble nutrients for better absorption. We like Greens First and Athletic Greens, as products like these have a higher concentration of antioxidant-boosting polyphenols and have third-party verification of their efficacy. If protein powder is your go-to product, go for it…but if it’s plant-based, make sure to check its heavy metal toxicity.

And always check with your doctor before taking anything new – some of these can have harmful interactions with certain medicines and health conditions.

But most importantly, fill that plate up with greens. Need some help? Try some of our veggie-heavy recipes!

Steak & Veggie Soup  |  Spicy Sausage with Veggie Orzo  |  Healthy Breakfast Wrap  |  Pan-seared Salmon with Broccolini and Spaghetti Squash  |  Keto Mahi Mahi with Cauliflower Rice and Brussels Sprouts  |  Turkey Sausage Lentil Pasta with Veggies  |  Clean-out-the-kitchen Quiche  |  Strawberry Salad  |  Roasted Broccoli