As many of you know by now, I try to consume the most nutritious foods possible. However, I’ve never listed exactly what foods provide the most nutrients per serving.
Advertisements claim that certain foods are important nutritionally. Markets assign numbered scores to various products. Most of these rating systems, such as NuVal and ANDI, are inaccurate for a number of reasons.
First, they look at nutrients that are not essential for life, and conversely, overlook nutrients that are necessary for life. Second, they draw from disproved nutritional norms, such as dietary cholesterol and saturated fat being “bad”. Thirdly, they are designed by agricultural companies or individuals with a bias.
Scientists, such as Loren Cordain and Mat Lalonde, have done extensive work in the last few decades to redesign nutrient rating systems. They set aside non-essential nutrients in food and focused purely on what the body must consume from outside sources.
The body cannot produce the following:
Fatty Acids: Omega 3 and Omega 6
Amino Acids: isoleucine; leucine; lysine; methionine; phenylalanine; threonine; tryptophan; valine; histidine
Vitamins: A; Bp (choline); B1 (thiamine); B2 (riboflavin); B3 (niacin); B5 (pantothenic acid); B6; B7 (biotin); B9 (folic acid); B12; C; D; E; K
Minerals: calcium; chloride; chromium; cobalt; copper; iodide; iron; magnesium; manganese; molybdenum; nickel; phosphorus; potassium; selenium; sodium; sulfur; zinc
These nutrients were plugged into the following formula to determine nutrient density:
(sum of essential nutrients per serving) ÷ (weight per serving)
I’d like to make a few points before posting Mat’s nutrient density list.
First, the database he drew from did not have complete data for certain nutrients.
The database did not differentiate between preformed vitamins and their final form. Vitamin A, “beta-carotene”, in sweet potatoes and carrots, must be converted to “retinol”, found in egg yolks and liver. Vitamin K1, found in green leafy vegetables, requires conversion to K2, found in grass-fed dairy.
There was no way to account for bioavailability of nutrients. Most grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain high levels of phytates which prevent absorption of nutrients and minerals.
Finally, and most importantly, the diet, age, and lifestyle of animals were not specified. Grass-fed beef, raised on open pastures, is much healthier than corn-fed beef, raised in stalls that restrict movement. Also, mature ducks having more nutritional value than baby ducks.
Taking this unavailable data into consideration, we can assume that most animal products would move up a few spots. This is because most plants have limited amino acids and fatty acids, and the vitamins found in vegetables must be converted or activated.
Without further ado, the ranking of nutrient density averages for the food groups:
1.) Organ Meats and Oils
2.) Herbs and Spices
3.) Nuts and Seeds
5.) Fish and Seafood
8.) Eggs & Dairy
9.) Vegetables (raw & unprepared)
10.) Lamb, Veal, and Wild Game
13.) Processed Meat
14.) Vegetables (cooked, canned, blanched, pickled)
15.) Plant Fats and Oils
17.) Animal Skin and Feet
18.) Grains and Pseudocereals (cooked)
19.) Refined and Processed Fats and Oils
20.) Grains (canned)
21.) Processed Fruit
Many people will be surprised by how low grains appear on the list. The nutrient value of raw grains would place them in the top 5. However, our bodies cannot digest raw grains. Taking nutrient loss during cooking and expansion of grains (1/4 cup raw rice = 1 cup cooked rice) into account, their value decreases dramatically.
I was quite surprised to see herbs, spices, and cacao near the top of the list. I always considered these foods to be enjoyable additions to a healthy diet, but not the most valuable sources of nutrients.
Two final notes regarding this list:
It is not a requirement to eat the most nutritious foods all the time. Certain nutrients, such as activated vitamin A (retinol) and selenium (abundant in Brazil nuts) are actually toxic in high doses.
Second, as previously mentioned, this rating system only looks at essential nutrients. Many vegetables contain antioxidants and fiber that can improve health, even though they are non-essential for life.
I would recommend consuming foods higher on this list and keeping your meals full of vegetables.
For Mat Lalonde’s complete presentation, follow this link to YouTube.
Matheiu Lalonde has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and a postdoctoral degree in Inorganic Chemistry from Harvard. He teaches, lectures, and is the Science Safety Officer at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. I have to give him credit for the motivation behind, and information in, this post.
I hope this sets aside all confusion of what is best to eat.
Keep in mind that human-run studies can be flawed, correlations from epidemiological studies can be weak, and research can be conducted to prove a point, rather than discover the truth, but the actual make-up of foods cannot be disputed!