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Nutrient testing receives fine-tuning

Fruits and vegetables don’t always have the same amount of nutrients. In fact, individual produce items can vary hugely in the nutrients they provide. Does it matter? And how would we tell anyway?

Boston-based TeakOrigin is a company claiming that current measures of nutrients in produce are unsatisfactory.

“Most food companies measure fruit and vegetable quality in one of two ways,” says the company’s website. “They evaluate either by looks—does the fruit meet visual standards? Or with Brix, a tool that cannot accurately tell you the nutritional quality of food, let alone the actual sugar content that it claims to measure.”

Why? “Degrees Brix (symbol °Bx) is the sugar content of an aqueous solution,” Wikipedia informs us. “One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by mass. If the solution contains dissolved solids other than pure sucrose, then the °Bx only approximates the dissolved solid content.”

In other words, if you test Coca-Cola for Brix, you will get a reasonably accurate reading, because Coca-Cola contains very little besides water and high-fructose corn syrup (or sugar, in the old days). But with fruits and vegetables, which have many more ingredients than sucrose, Brix is actually measuring the quantity of soluble solids.

The other criterion for nutritional quality is appearance. Consumers, like retailers, believe that attractive, symmetrical produce have more nutrients than uglier specimens. But looks have little if any correlation with nutrient value. “A fruit may meet the exact definition of perfect, and still have fewer nutrients than an irregular ‘ugly’ fruit,” says the TeakOrigin site.

Instead of relying simply on Brix and appearance, TeakOrigin evaluates fruits and vegetables with what it describes as “our proprietary technology that combines analytical chemistry, spectroscopy and machine learning.”

Samples are collected from ten stores in each city (Boston and Los Angeles are the choices for the pilot project), and their nutritional content is tested on the basis of what the items actually deliver versus what they are supposed to deliver. The TeakOrigins Guide reports the findings and also declares which chain offers the best nutritional value.

As of October 20, the red apples tested by TeakOrigin didn’t perform very well, providing only 73 percent of the nutrients in the FDA Food Label Standard, and only 23 percent of the antioxidants. Sam’s Club, however, did the best among retailers.

Findings for avocados weren’t impressive either. The samples provided 71 percent of the Food Level Standard, and a lackluster 52 percent of lineolic acid (Omega 6 fatty acid). Walmart won among the retailers here.

Green grapes fared much better, providing 92 percent of the nutrients in the Food Label Standard, and 96 percent of the antioxidants. Here Aldi took the prize for “most nutrition delivered per dollar.”

The accuracy and precision of TeakOrigins’ methods are not a matter for a journalist to gauge. But consumers are scrutinizing nutrients more and more closely.

If a retailer can provably claim to have oranges and spinach that are more nutritious than those of its competitors, it could gain an interesting marketing advantage.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 11 books.