Launching the Real Food Campaign

Dan Kittredge, founder and executive directotr of the Bionutrient Food Association.


Mock-up of the handheld Bionutrient Meter. (Click to enlarge)

On November 28, 2017, the Bionutrient Food Association launched the Real Food Campaign to “Increase Quality in the Food Supply”. The campaign bridges the food, health, environmental, and climate movements to build tools for transparency in the food supply. By defining and measuring food quality, a new metric can be established to promote healthy farming practices. This, in turn, will provide accountability for farmers and consumers to produce and purchase high-quality food.

The objectives of the campaign were introduced at the Seventh Annual Soil and Nutrition Conference: Growing the movement around food quality in Southbridge, MA. Dan Kittredge, the founder and director of the Bionutrient Food Association, was the keynote speaker at the conference, which also included speakers such as Elaine Ingham (Soil Foodweb), David Montgomery (University of Washington), and Christine Jones (Carbon for Life, Inc). Partners of the campaign are farmOSOur Sci, and Next7. As described on the website, the campaign consists of three prongs:

  • Engineering, building and calibrating the hand-held Bionutrient Meter to give anyone the ability to test food quality with a flash of light in real time,
  • Building the database of nutrient levels in crops with which to define relative quality in food,
  • Establishing the open platform for collaborative research to support growers in making best practices management decisions to increase crop quality, soil and plant health, and economic viability.

An illustration of the Bionutrient Meter measuring nutrient density. (Click to enlarge)

An innovation of the Real Food Campaign is the Bionutrient Meter – a handheld device that can measure nutrient density based on light reflectance – which was presented for the first time at the conference. Informally, nutrients produce very specific colors that may not be visible to the naked bye but can be detected by the Bionutrient Meter. Usually, the darker or more vibrant a food is in color, the more nutrient dense it is.

The Bionutrient Meter measures nutrients with a non-destructive, light-based method that preserves crop integrity and requires minimal input from the user. It can measure a broad range of nutrients, surpassing current techniques which measure one or a few nutrients at a time. This device would democratize nutrient density measurements from being an intensive lab procedure to a simple test that can be performed by a layperson, empowering farmers and consumers to be more informed about their food quality.

Honeynut squash for sale at a farmer’s market. Photo by Tracy Russo. (Click to enlarge)

Nutrient density is defined as the level of nutrients per unit calorie and is rarely measured by the USDA and other agencies, despite being an important component to human health. Conventional farmers cultivate for visual traits such as volume and appearance, as well as growth traits such as pesticide resistance, yield, and cold tolerance, rather than for nutrition, which is related to flavor and longer shelf life. For example, conventional farmers produce large, bright red tomatoes that have little flavor or nutrition.

However, there is a growing movement to incorporate nutrition as a valuable trait.

Dan Barber, the renowned chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, is a pioneer in the local food movement who measures the nutrient density of produce grown on his farm and in his greenhouse with a Brix meter. Barber and Michael Mazourek collaborated to cultivate for flavor, generating the honeynut squash, a concentrated miniature butternut squash that was made available to the public for the first time last fall. Consumers responded with enthusiasm, buying the honeynut squash to cook, and gardeners planted its seeds. The honeynut squash has twice the beta carotene of a butternut squash, giving it a deeper color and sweeter flavor.

Dan Barber is the renowned chef of Blue Hill Farm and Restaurant who uses a Brix meter to check for nutrient density of produce grown on his farm and in his greenhouse. (Click to enlarge)The largest impact of the Bionutrient Meter lies in its effect on farmers, who currently care or are starting to care about nutrient density. RTE recently interviewed Jon Frank, who is a co-owner of International AG Labs and the founder of Grow Your Own Nutrition, a project that helps gardeners mineralize their soil to grow nutrient dense foods. He also developed the Tomato Project, a quest to set a standard of nutrient density for tomato. The meter could help with these projects.

A growing conversation with chefs and farmers about cultivating for flavor will further support these efforts. The device would provide a new metric of accountability and quality control to ensure crops are meeting specific standards for nutrients. This transparency can improve the quality of crops produced and provide feedback to farmers about the effectiveness of their farming methods to harness nutrition as the desired trait. Seeing and quantifying differences in nutrient density would be a boon to local farmers and producers that are implementing good farming practices.

Dan Barber is the renowned chef of Blue Hill Farm and Restaurant who uses a Brix meter to check for nutrient density of produce grown on his farm and in his greenhouse. (Click to enlarge)

The device will also have the potential to impact consumers, though the effect may be less immediate than for farmers. Current nutritional guidelines promote a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, not specifying the quality of these fruits and vegetables. The majority of calories in the Standard American Diet are from refined vegetable oils and sugars, whose empty calories can lead to micronutrient deficiencies, obesity, and other health problems. However, in combination with nutritional education, the device can empower consumers to make more informed healthy eating decisions. The device enables data collection for nutritional value, a metric hitherto unincorporated into the current conversation about the food supply, which may eventually lead to a change in public health and nutritional guidelines by decision-making bodies.

Ultimately, the aim of the Real Food Campaign is to promote transparency in the food supply and to educate consumers about the quality of their food. The Bionutrient Meter is a tool to provide new information to farmers and consumers that can impact their decisions about growing crops and purchasing food. Through multi-level collaboration with farmers, consumers, and public health professionals, the device has the potential to change the way we think about food quality and foster a new priority of nutrition for a healthier population and Earth.

Winnie S. Wong is a 6th year Ph.D. Candidate in Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Boston University. She received her M.S. in BME from BU in 2016 and her B.S. in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley in 2012. For her Ph.D. thesis, she is developing a point-of-care diagnostic for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) strains 16 and 18 to diagnose cervical cancer in low-resource settings. Whether through innovative technology or effective writing, she seeks to increase accessibility to science for a broader audience. She is motivated by the intersection of technology, food, and the environment, and looks forward to exploring these themes as a science writer for Remineralize the Earth.



Linked Resources

  1. The Real Food Campaign
  2. The Seventh Annual Soil and Nutrition Conference: Growing the movement around food quality
  3. Soil & Nutrition Conference Video Archive
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