A Peck of Dirt

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“A Peck of Dirt,” Ensign, July 1974, 52–53

A Peck of Dirt

“You’ll eat a peck of dirt before you die.”

That old proverb hardly seems applicable any more as we sit at tables garnished with sterilized, hermetically sealed products of last fall’s harvest. Yet what young mother has not returned from a tour of spotless grocery shelves to find her son eagerly gobbling up a tasty bit of sod? And who has not taken delight in that first delicious chomp on a carrot plucked from the damp earth and given only a token cleaning on the shirtsleeve?

Perhaps consumption of such delicacies is becoming increasingly rare in a day when the idea of eating unwashed food is foreign to us. Most of us probably wash our vegetables until they are squeaky clean. But after all our precautions there are still certain kinds of “dirt” that we cannot and should not avoid eating. This is the “dirt” found inside our food, a substance many scientists believe is of vital importance to our health.

Dirt, you may say, is not a very good name for a nutrient. Scientists, too, have an aesthetic bent; so the term “trace elements” has been coined to label the minute amounts of iron, zinc, tin, chromium, cobalt, copper, vanadium, flourine, silicon, iodine, molybdenum, manganese, and selenium that are normally present in our bodies. Hopefully all appear in our foods, because without them we would suffer a complete chemical breakdown.

Trace elements would merely be of casual interest were it not for the growing concern in the scientific community that we are starving for nutrients. In fact, the fat of the land, along with sugar and flour, may be the very cause of our growing malnutrition.

Take the sweet, succulent juice that oozes from a stick of sugar cane and send it through a refinery. Out the other end comes pure, white, sweet crystals. They don’t lump in damp weather or discolor fancy pastries. They are the “perfect energy food.” But where is all of the zinc? Unfortunately, most of it is still back at the factory. Most of the other trace elements are also missing. In fact, 98 per cent of the chromium originally present in sugar is gone when you buy it in its purified form. White sugar, refined flour, and purified fats and oils are commendably pure of anything harmful, but they may be doing us actual harm by depriving us of needed nutrients.

Research concerning trace elements in the human metabolism is still in the infant stage. It is only possible to draw immediate connection between trace elements and disease in a few cases. More and more, however, the finger of guilt seems to be pointing to deficiency as the important predecessor to physical problems.

Iron deficiency is one syndrome well established. It is a disease common among growing children, and it afflicts more than 25 million women in the United States alone. For five million Americans, reduced body iron has caused anemia.

Zinc should be almost as abundant in the body as is iron. But candy bars, soft drinks, and other snack foods are threatening to thrust zinc deficiency to the fore in the race against good eating.

The pride of many a car owner is the Shiny chrome that dazzles the eye. The same metal adds some important touches to our bodies; and though the role is less decorative, it is much more significant: chromium seems to be necessary for the proper action of insulin in our bodies.

What can we do to get all the trace elements we need? One method would be to use large amounts of refined food but to depend on industry to put back what has been destroyed. A second alternative would be to eat large amounts of unprocessed food.

If we refine food in an attempt to preserve it longer, can we successfully replace trace elements that have been inadvertently lost? The answer to this question is not definite. In some cases, like that of zinc, almost any inorganic salt could replace what has been removed. Just as inorganic iodine salt added to table salt helps to prevent goiter, so the problems of zinc deficiency can be simply overcome. For some elements, however, such as cobalt found in vitamin B12, only certain organic forms seem to be effective. For many substances, like chromium and selenium, no one knows what the effective organic forms are.

Once trace elements are removed from our food, the best we can do at present is use an inorganic supplement. Ultimately, research may find the necessary answers to make supplementation of all trace elements practical. At that point we could theoretically eat processed food rich in all necessary trace elements, but this approach is not likely to be successful in the foreseeable future. It would just be too difficult to successfully replace the exact amount of any element in our food. If too much of an element is added, it might be very easy to poison ourselves. Even iron is not a simple case. If we fortify our foods with enough iron to solve female deficiency problems, such quantities might be harmful to men.

If the complexities of food processing and supplementation seem unacceptable, we could go back to eating large helpings of unprocessed, unbleached, unrefined, unmitigated food. The idea really isn’t very revolutionary. The Lord admonishes us to eat “every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.” (D&C 89:11.) The “wheat for man” spoken of in the Word of Wisdom is an excellent staple containing vital trace elements when accompanied by other fresh foods. Whole, fresh foods just taste as if they would be good for you. And from a trace element standpoint, as indeed from any other, they are.

“Man ist was man isst” says the German proverb. “Man is what he eats.” Though the literal truth of the proverb is questionable, to eat wisely is certainly important to us all. But faddish diets and undue dedication to health foods are uncalled for. Regular consumption of wholesome foods as unprocessed as practically possible is a good answer to the trace element dilemma on the individual level.

Whole wheat, brown sugar or honey, and a balanced diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats are any homemaker’s finest allies. If we eat wisely, as the scriptures promise, we shall enjoy “health in [our] navel, marrow to [our] bones … and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.” (D&C 89:18, 20.)