Nutrient Analysis of 68 Plant-Based Foods
To better understand which plant-based sources are richest in the well-known nutrients, the nutrient concentrations of 68 commonly eaten plant foods were compared. The data was extracted from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database.(1) The EU Nutrient Reference Value (NRV)(2) was used as a benchmark for comparison and to give an approximation of our daily nutrient requirements. Take note that deficiencies in vitamins and minerals can occur in varying degrees. Only plant-based sources of nutrients are extensively discussed in this analysis to encourage compassionate eating options. Nutrients arranged in alphabetical order.
There has been no evidence of toxicity from vegetable sources of Vitamin A, unlike with its meat sources.
Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to affect one-third of children under the age of 5 around the world.(3) Vitamin A deficiency can lower the immune system leaving one more vulnerable to infections and the serious effects thereof. In serious cases of malnutrition, it can lead to night blindness or clouding of the cornea.
Carrots are famous for their Vitamin A content with 1 medium carrot providing 64% of an adults vitamin A needs. 1 cup of cooked sweet potato (100 g) exceeds this providing 120% of an adult's Vitamin A needs. This is followed by 100 g butternut which can provide 70% of your vitamin A needs, followed closely by spinach and then other leafy greens. (1)(2)
Free radicals can cause damage by stealing electrons from our body cells - the loss of electrons is known as oxidation. Anti-oxidants such as Vitamin C or E, found naturally in fruits and vegetables, help to disarm these free radicals, by providing electrons, thus providing anti-aging benefits and protection against disease.
One such potent anti-oxidant is alpha-lipoic acid (ALA). As you age, your body produces less alpha-lipoic acid; it would, therefore, be useful to consume it in foods such as watercress, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, beetroot, tomatoes, and spinach. ALA has recently been introduced into beauty products because of its anti-aging properties. It is also purported to reduce blood pressure, increase insulin sensitivity and reduce nerve damage in certain cases.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Severe deficiency can cause Beriberi, a disease that causes nerve inflammation and muscle weakness. From those plant based foods analysed, sunflower seeds and soya beans were found to be the richest in vitamin B1. In general, grains (whole and refined), legumes, nuts and seeds are all rich in vitamin B1. Fruits and vegetables also contain vitamin B1 in smaller quantities. (1)
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Vitamin B2 is involved in carbohydrate and protein metabolism. Deficiencies can cause cracked skin and defective vision. Almonds and leafy greens, including kale, spinach, and coriander are rich in vitamin B2. It is also found in appreciable amounts in avocados, raw zucchini, soybeans, peas, mung bean sprouts, and lentil sprouts. (1)
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Niacin plays a part in cell respiration. A severe deficiency can result in Pellagra, a disease that causes skin disorders, diarrhoea and dementia. Rice (both brown and white long grain), sunflower seeds and peanuts (raw and roasted) are good sources of vitamin B3. (1)
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Vitamin B6 is used by enzymes involved in the metabolism of amino acids and fatty acids. A deficiency can cause anaemia in children. Vitamin B6 is found in substantial quantities in bananas, sunflower seeds, sweet potato, and raw zucchini. (1) It also appears, in smaller concentrations, in other vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and nuts. (1)
Vitamin B12 is involved in metabolism. Deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause impaired nervous system function and pernicious anaemia. Vitamin B12 is produced by certain bacteria and Achaea, found in soil. It is found readily in animal-based foods (such as dairy and meat) when animals eat vegetation laden with these organisms or when animals are supplemented. It is not commonly found in plant sources of food unless it is added, as is done in many food products.
Although vitamin B12 is produced in the human gut, it is towards the end of the process, so absorption is limited. Vitamin B12 deficiency is commonly caused by impaired absorption of the vitamin, even if you consume enough of it.
The EU NRV for calcium is 800 mg(2) per day. A glass of milk offers only 38% of this. It is therefore not always practical to meet all of our daily calcium needs from dairy alone. Fortunately, almost all plant foods contribute in varying amounts, to our daily calcium needs. Calcium is found in high concentrations (per reasonable serving size) in leafy greens, chia seeds, broccoli, okra, rhubarb, chickpeas, soya beans, butternut, oranges and almonds; with 100 grams of kale contributing almost as much as a glass of milk. (1)Basil and chia seeds also deliver greater than 20% of what is recommended by the EU NRV, per reasonable serving size. (1)(2)
Vitamin C is required for the growth of teeth, bones and blood vessels. It also aids wound healing and promotes the formation of collagen, which is a component of skin and hair. A severe deficiency would result in scurvy with symptoms that include bleeding gums, anaemia, weight loss, and internal bleeding. Vitamin C is commonly consumed to provide immune system support against viral and bacterial infections. It also boosts absorption of iron when served along sources of iron.
Fruits and vegetables are abundant in Vitamin C. Peppers, broccoli, kale, strawberries, papaya, litchis, and oranges are some of the richest sources of vitamin C. Also rich in vitamin C are pineapple, kiwi fruit, mango, honeydew melon, peas, tomatoes, raw zucchini, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. (1) Vitamin C from fresh, whole-food plant sources, can be consumed without side-effects, unlike sometimes experienced with synthetic supplements.
Take note that vitamin C is sensitive to heat and air, therefore, concentrations can reduce during cooking or storage. Enjoy plant foods in its freshest forms to gain the most advantage of this vital nutrient.
The primary source of vitamin D is from the action of sunlight on our skin. It is therefore imperative to expose our children to sunlight regularly. Take note that if the sunlight has passed through common glass, it will impair the production of vitamin D. Vitamin D aids the absorption of calcium and phosphorous and prevents Rickets in children. It can also be consumed through fortified foods, certain egg yolks (depending on what the hens are fed) and fish. Supplementation with vitamin D3 is often recommended if you do not get regular sunlight. There are Vitamin D drops that are made especially for babies.
Vitamin E is required for the formation of red blood cells and to protect cell membranes from damage. Of the plant-foods analysed, vitamin E was found in appreciable quantities in almonds, sunflower seeds, avocados, peanuts, brazil nuts, leafy greens, butternut, pumpkin, tomatoes, mangos, peaches, kiwifruit, and blueberries. (1)
Enzymes are biological catalysts, meaning that they start biological reactions or make them happen faster. Enzymes are typically denatured (destroyed or de-activated) by heat. Therefore enzymes are more commonly found in raw (unheated) fruits and vegetables. Enzymes carry out many jobs within the body, including healing and assisting with the absorption of nutrients.
Variety is important when consuming fruits and vegetables since different foods provide specific enzymes that perform specific functions.
It is optimum to eat some raw fruits and vegetables with each meal to have beneficial enzymes aid digestion. That can take the form of a side salad, a pesto or a fruit for dessert.
Fibre may not be a nutrient, but it deserves a special mention since it is a component of plant foods that serves our body in many ways. Plant-foods are our only source of fibre. Animal products do not contain dietary fibre. Fibre feeds the good bacteria in our gut that supports our immune system. Insoluble fibre promotes regular bowel movements. Soluble fibre is used to lower cholesterol and other blood lipids to reduce the risk of heart disease. Fibre may also play a role in blood sugar regulation, helping to prevent or manage diabetes It may also reduce the risk of some types of cancer. Eating a variety of plant foods will ensure that you meet your fibre requirements. Pears, coconut, avocados and legumes (including peas, chickpeas, mung beans and lentils) are rich in fibre. (1)
Folic acid (Folate)
You may have been made aware, by your health care practitioner, of the need for folic acid during pregnancy, for the purpose of preventing birth defects. This requirement does not stop at your child's birth; it is a nutritional necessity that continues through childhood and adulthood. Folic acid is required for amino acid and DNA synthesis and is involved in red blood formation.
Legumes and leafy greens are especially high in folic acid, with 100 grams of spinach, lentils, chickpeas, soya beans or mung beans providing just under 100% of your daily needs (as per the EU NRV).(1)(2) Also providing significant quantities of folic acid are sunflower seeds, raw peanuts, mangos, avocados, cauliflower and beetroot. Other vegetables, fruits and nuts provide folic acid too, in smaller quantities.(1)
Deficiencies in iron can result in anaemia. Plant sources of iron include leafy greens, legumes, quinoa, nuts (including coconut), and seeds, many of which contribute much more iron than a serving of meat. (1) Soaking and sprouting of nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole-grains, increases the bio-availability and resulting absorption of iron from these foods. Vitamin C helps to boost the absorption of iron from all foods. It is, therefore, ideal to include a vitamin C rich food with all meals. Also note that tannins, such as those found in teas, reduce iron availability.
The body needs vitamin K for blood clotting and healthy bones. Vitamin K improves calcium absorption and retention. Dark leafy greens are very rich in vitamin K. There is more than 500% of an adult's daily requirement of vitamin K, in just 100 grams of leafy greens. (1) It is also abundant in cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli, where 1 serving can provide more than 100% of your daily needs. (1)(2) In addition, it is found in significant quantities in okra, leeks, mung beans, peas, blueberries, and kiwifruit. (1)
Deficiencies in magnesium can result in stunted growth, behavioural problems and tremors. Seeds, nuts, leafy greens, brown rice and legumes are all rich in magnesium. (1) Bananas, raw zucchini and raw Brussels sprouts also contain magnesium. (1)
Phosphorous is essential for strong bones and teeth. Phosphorous is found in small to large quantities in all of the plant foods analysed, with the highest concentrations present in raw Brussels sprouts and seeds followed by nuts (including coconut), legumes and then, whole-grains.(1) The phosphorous content of lentils and nuts is comparable with that of chicken, while seeds far surpass it. (1)(2) Note that legumes, nuts and seeds, should be sprouted for the best bio-availability of phosphorous.
Potassium helps to balance water and ions such as sodium in the blood and tissues. Doing so helps us excrete excess sodium in our urine. This, together with its ability to relax the walls of blood vessels, could help to prevent or relieve hypertension. Deficiencies can cause muscle weakness, paralysis, and heart failure. Potassium is found abundantly in many fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. (1) A serving of spinach, sweet potato, avocado, sprouted soya-beans, raw zucchini, coconut, and tomato, can contain just as much potassium as a banana, which is already well known for its potassium content. (1) Other fresh products containing potassium are kale, raw cauliflower, peaches, oranges, honeydew melon, lentils, and kale. (1)
Selenium is an antioxidant meaning that it prevents damage to cells and tissues through oxidation. Selenium assists the thyroid with hormone regulation and detoxification of heavy metals such as mercury.
Just 6 brazil nuts provide almost 1000% of an adult's daily selenium needs. (1) It, therefore, serves as a great, natural selenium supplement. Although not as rich, bread and rice (brown and white) also contain selenium, as well as, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and coconut. (1) It is also found in meat products such as chicken.
Silica is believed to play a role in bone strength and is used to make up collagen for the skin. Silica can be found in several fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. (1) The skins and other fibrous parts of these products are most rich in silica.
Zinc is necessary for normal growth and wound healing. It is known for reducing the severity and duration cold's and flues. It is a component of several enzymes. Legumes, nuts (including coconut), seeds and brown rice are all abundant in zinc. (1) Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are especially rich plant-based sources of zinc. (1)
Written by Natasha Subbiah
United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, USDA Food Composition Databases, USDA, 2018, https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/ (accessed 27 April 2019)
Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS), Recommended Intake Guidelines, HSIS, 2017, https://www.hsis.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Recommended-Intake-Guidelines.pdf (accessed on 07 July 2019)
World Health Organisation, 'Global prevalence of serum retinol concentrations 1995-2005', Vitamin and Mineral Nutrition Information System (VMNIS), World Health Organisation 2009, Table 1, https://www.who.int/vmnis/database/vitamina/table2/en/ (accessed 29 September 2019)
Happiness Through Spirituality
When you need to make sense of your world and how you fit into it, when your happiness becomes your priority, Unity Mama can assist you with a philosophy that stitches together the pieces of the puzzle, from several major religions of our world - to map the highest path to the highest goal - happiness!