Ask Keri: Hydroponic greens and tomatoes are suddenly everywhere. Are they as healthy as the same vegetables grown in soil?
Keri Says: If we’re talking just about the straight-up nutrient values by the numbers, hydroponic vegetables are generally comparable to their counterparts grown in soil.
Those numbers vary from farm to farm, vegetable to vegetable, and variety to variety, but they’re generally close enough so that choosing one or the other won’t make a meaningful difference to your health. (The trick is consistently eating a high volume of many different kinds of vegetables.)
There are, however, many other things to consider—from your gut health to the good of the planet—when you’re choosing hydroponic versus soil-grown. Here’s a quick rundown.
Why Is the World of Hydroponic Vegetables Growing?
At the supermarket, you may have noticed an increase in uniformly pretty greens, tomatoes, and herbs from companies like Gotham Greens, Bright Farms, and Square Roots.
A ton of venture capital is being put into indoor hydroponic farming right now, which is a system in which vegetables are grown inside without soil, usually in vertically stacked systems, under LED light. The plants grow in water, and nutrient solutions are added to make up for trace minerals they would traditionally get from soil.
Advocates say these systems are better than traditional agriculture because it allows companies to grow crops year-round even in cold climates and eliminates the unpredictability of weather, which can ruin an outdoor crop without warning. Since the plants are stacked vertically, growers can also produce much more food on less land. They typically also use less water because it can be precisely measured and recirculated, and it’s easier to grow without pesticides.
As mentioned earlier, hydroponic vegetables tend to be similar to soil-grown in terms of nutrient content. Advocates say (and some tests have shown) that sometimes they are slightly higher in certain nutrients because growers can control exact inputs and because a lot of soil has been depleted by intensive production over the years, which strips out nutrients.
Of course, when soil is managed well, rich, organic dirt is incredibly nutrient-dense, and here’s one interesting thing: it contains billions of microorganisms, many of which are the basis of a healthy microbiome. That complex world of beneficial bugs isn’t even completely understood, yet, so in this case you may be missing out on something nature designed that we haven’t figured out yet, when you choose hydro.
Hydroponic vs. Soil: Other Considerations
There are also other, non-nutrient reasons to choose vegetables grown in soil, since dirt is kind of (actually, totally!) essential to life on the planet.
Dedicated organic farmers who are doing things right regenerate and maintain soil, and that soil literally pulls climate change-causing carbon out of the atmosphere and traps it beneath our feet (or zucchinis). They also do that using natural energy—sunlight—without tapping into the electrical grid.
The bottom line? We need smart, organic farmers to grow delicious veggies in rich, healthy soil, but having another option for winter (or just to produce more good food) is pretty exciting. My advice is to support local farmers who are taking care of the earth when you can and to also buy hydroponic veggies when they’re the freshest option available. To be honest, I want you eating a ton of vegetables, so there’s plenty of room on your plate for both.
(Featured Image: Shutterstock)