Mercury Food and Wine articles No.6

My February 2011 article.

Taste test

Does organic taste better? This controversial claim is expressed often by organic enthusiasts. But does it? This claim is frequently attacked by critics of organic farming. The critics see it as unsubstantiated “woo” to justify higher prices while the organic enthusiasts see it as indicative of the superior quality of organic produce.

First I think we should look at what is taste and how we can measure it. The taste of a food item is known as its organoleptic quality. Organoleptic is defined as “the sensory properties of a particular food.” In addition to taste this includes texture, aroma, appearance and size. What we normally refer to as taste is normally a combination of all these sensory inputs.

A number of studies have been made on this comparison with mixed results. Organoleptic quality is very difficult to measure as at present it is very reliant on the subjective opinions of individual tasters. There are also a large number of variables to contend with, such as freshness, growing conditions, soils, presentation and tasters preconceptions. This last variable is interesting as it involves what is known as the “Halo Effect”. This is the bias that arises in a taster when information about one quality attribute of a product serves to influence and bias the judgement of its other qualities. It is possible that if one knows that for instance a product is organic, this will influence your decision that it tastes better than its conventional rival.

The taste of fruit and vegetables is determined by the level of certain phytochemicals produced within the plant. These compounds range from sugars to chemicals linked to the plants defence strategies. The levels of these compounds are dependent on genetics (variety) and on environmental conditions such as nutrition, water, temperature and predation and disease. A farmer has great deal of control over some of these variables and therefore has great influence over the taste of his produce. A bad organic farmer will certainly have inferior produce to a good conventional farmer.

Hydroponic farmers know that to increase the concentration of nutrients in their hydroponic solution will increase the concentration of dry matter, sugar and acids. In for example, tomatoes this will improve their taste and texture. However, this does reduce yield. It is unfortunately true that in the conventional farming model yield often trumps taste as the main objective. Crop variety also plays a part. So called “long life” tomatoes give a good yield, long shelf life and durability in handling but sacrifice taste in return. A “Brandywine” tomato in contrast takes longer to grow, does not handle as well but tastes awesome. Organic farmers tend to plant “heirloom varieties” such as the Brandywine as they respond better to Organic methods.

Organic farming methods are more conducive to tastier produce as the emphasis is more on quality than yield. A good Organic farmer will first look after and build her soil. A good soil will provide an optimum habitat for beneficial soil micro-organisms as well as fungi and the larger fauna. These will provide an ideal environment for healthy growth and provide a diverse range of nutrients to promote a good organoleptic quality to the produce. However organic crops are not molly-coddled but do go through a small amount of stress. A small amount of stress can improve the flavour of produce. Too much of course will do the opposite. Too little can result in blandness.

On the whole then I would assert that well grown organic produce will taste better than conventional produce, but I will leave the final judgement to the individual consumer.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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