What Determines Food Quality?

Have you ever thought about it?

Is there any [low-tech, low-cost] way that would tell us whether a food was of good quality? And, how good? (Not just looking good, but a food with quality and integrity.)

Yes! There is a way. 

There’s a simple tool called a refractometer, which we use on the farm to gauge the quality of the plants and food that we’re producing.

It measures the sugar content (called brix) in the juice from a leaf or vegetable or fruit. This directly correlates to the levels of minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, essential fatty acids, and other nutrients such as antioxidants, in that food.

It’s pretty neat – and something that we’re continually using to better the quality of our crops.

When I began to learn about the ways farmers can improve the nutritional quality of the food they produce, I realized something one day:

It’s common practice for farmers to send samples of their livestock feed for analysis. In fact, most farmers get an analysis of every batch of feed they produce (eg, every cutting of hay, samples from each field) because it directly correlates to the health and productivity of their animals.

Who’s analyzing the crops of food for people? 

Is it not just as important to know the quality of what we’re eating, for the sake of our own health and productivity?

That set me off on a quest to produce the best-quality food that I could, relying on the refractometer to indicate the progress from the knowledge I was applying.

Sure, it would be more accurate to get a complete analysis from a lab for various crops – but it’s completely unaffordable, especially for the number of tests we’d like to run for all the crops we grow.

With a one-time investment in this simple refractometer, I can test as many samples as I want. I can sample at any part of the growing season, any time I choose, and use the measurements to guide my growing practices.

This way, we can have solid and objective evidence of the quality of what is going from our field to those who are nourished by our food.

The beauty of this system is that it works based on a principle of nature: when all the pieces are fitting into place, in terms of the nutrients and other factors that a plant requires, then the brix will rise. 

The higher the brix, the more nutrition is in the food. 

This is the goal we’ve chosen to pursue.

We’re still reaching for the upper limits of quality, and reach new levels each year. 

It makes farming more fun and exciting – and it’s also so satisfying when people feel the difference from eating our food. The increased flavor is a great bonus of higher quality food, but the real target is increasing health vitality.

This winter, I’ve learned even more about how to make this all happen, and I’m excited to be producing food of even higher quality for our Vegetable Share members in 2018!

Deanna van den Dries