by Allison Schultz
Have you ever had a bite of crispy red bell pepper that tasted like water? Or a strawberry that tasted more like dirt than summer sunshine? Maybe it was a peach that looked symmetrical and bright yellow-orange and blemish free on the outside, but that was hard to bite into or mealy or just plain disappointing? When it comes to food, taste is incredibly important. There may be a simple solution to say goodbye to bland produce forever.
Imagine a strawberry: bright red, glistening with dew, an elongated cone shape speckled with tiny seeds. It’s weighty in the hand for its size, with green, uniform leaves. Are you imagining a conventionally produced strawberry? If so, chances are that it is impressively large, but low on flavor. When it comes to taste, the best strawberries are probably on the smaller end of the spectrum, putting forth a concentrated flavor that you just won’t get from the giant, more visually impressive conventionally produced varieties.
This is true for many different types of produce, and has a lot to do with the way consumer expectations have been shaped over the years. Before food ever interacts with our taste buds, most of us eat with our eyes. A visually-appealing item or dish is presumed to be tasty, and this makes it incredibly enticing. That’s why presentation is so important at restaurants, and in the produce section of grocery stores. According to conventional standards, the bigger, brighter, more colorful and free from blemishes a fruit or vegetable is, the better.
Government grading standards often encourage the prevalence of visual characteristics, granting the highest grades (and thus enabling farmers to often earn the greatest profits) from produce that has a regular shape and meets certain standards of size and color. Marketing conventionally-grown produce has little to do with taste or healthiness. In fact, many items are actually picked and shipped before they are even ripe. Tomatoes are a great example of this. Plucked from their vines while they’re still green, many conventionally-grown tomatoes are sprayed with ethylene gas after shipping to turn their skins the satisfying shade of red that consumers expect. Whether or not they’re juicy or flavorful is irrelevant. If conventional tomatoes are the “correct” color, consumers will buy them. This is often the case regardless of the season, or the distance those tomatoes have traveled from the farm.
The notion that organic produce tends to be visually inferior to produce grown conventionally has been found by some experts to be completely unwarranted. Despite extensive research on the matter, this stereotype has prevailed for decades. In any case, it seems consumers often have trouble adjusting to the new and the unexpected, especially when it comes to their food. Perhaps an apple is less shiny than the ones a shopper is used to seeing at the store, a strawberry is smaller, a carrot is purple or a potato is blue. Here’s a tip: Take this is as a good sign, and begin exploring new tastes. Variety is not only the spice of life, it’s a key part of nutritional balance. Nutrition is still a relatively new science, but there’s one thing that we know for sure: a varied diet, heavy on the fruits and vegetables, tends to be a very good thing.
Consider, for a moment, that purple carrot. For many types of fruits and vegetables, there was once a considerable number of varieties that have largely been bred out today. Carrots used to come in many shade of purple, white, yellow and red. It took centuries of cultivation before orange carrots became the standard. Thanks for this in large part go to a desire to decrease the bitterness of white and purple varieties. This was coupled with an interest in honoring the Dutch royal family in the 1500s, known as the House of Orange. Only today are consumers rediscovering the courage to branch out and explore exciting non-commercial varieties of carrots, corn, tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, squash, beets, plums, apples, eggplant, and other amazing and delicious fruits and vegetables.
Though many fruits and vegetables historically were incredibly varied, the creation of industrial farming and grading standards made it easier on the farmers to grow one particular type of corn or radish or orange. That’s why in today’s grocery stores you’ll probably find only one or two varieties of each type of fruit or vegetable. Bananas are the strongest example of this. The most prevalent banana by far in the US is the Cavendish, uniform and yellow and about five to seven inches long. In fact, every one of these bananas is a clone of its brothers. All taste the same, the seeds have been bred out, and they’re somewhere between creamy and starchy with a moderate level of sweetness. Unfortunately, a fungus has taken hold that has put this banana at risk. Scientists are scrambling to either combat this blight, or put forth a new standardized banana variety that can be sold worldwide. In this case and in many others, monocropping and the reduction of agricultural variety destroys ecosystems and results in catastrophe. The highly restricted variety of agricultural products that many of us have become accustomed to not only deprives us of huge variations in the taste and appearance of our food, it actually puts the future of our entire food system at risk.
Organic produce tends to be smaller, and some degree of surface blemishes may be visible. It’s often the things that you can’t see that actually come into play here in the biggest way. Organic produce is grown without the use of potentially harmful artificial chemicals. This might mean smaller strawberries, but it also means less chemical exposure for you and your family. Unfortunately, this also means many types of organic produce won’t last as long as conventionally-produced produce might on the counter or in the fridge. Artificial pesticides and other chemicals create a barrier that naturally occurring microbes don’t like, so conventionally-grown produce tends to break down more slowly. Organic produce needs to be eaten quickly, or you might lose it to rot. But you’re trying to make sure at least half your plate is comprised of fruits and vegetables at every meal anyway, right? All of that produce that you just bought probably won’t be hanging around uneaten for very long. Eating more organic produce a little more quickly is a small price to pay for fruits and vegetables that tend to be more delicious, and potentially more nutritious.
Though conventionally grown varieties of fruits and vegetables may be bigger and generally more impressive looking, organic produce is known for tasting great. Though the science varies on this issue, some experts argue that organic produce offers better taste and nutrient quality for the simple reason that you get out what you put in. Good quality soil, free from artificial chemical additives, results in flavorful, nutrient-dense produce. Because organic produce is often purchased locally, you’re also more likely to find items that were picked at the peak of ripeness, and shipped short distances. This means better flavor, and also higher nutrient content. Believe it or not, the nutrients in many types of produce begin to break down as soon as they’re picked. Getting that produce to you faster, without the inclusion of additional unwanted chemicals, means more nutrients for you, the consumer. Also, since you don’t have to worry about that added chemical load, you may be more likely to eat the skins. This is a great idea, since the skins of many types of fruit and vegetables tend to be where you’ll find the majority of the nutrients. So, give that local or organic (or both!) produce a good scrub under cool, running water and ditch the peeler. If you’re not happy with a blemish here and there, cut those parts out.
When buying locally grown organic produce, especially at the farmer’s market, chances are that you’re going to encounter a bit of dirt. This is in part because large, industrial farming operations have factories devoted entirely to cleaning, sorting and packaging that the small farmer is not inclined to invest in. When your produce is being graded according to its looks, a chemical rinse and a light waxing can do wonders. For the consumer, a light coating of dirt is healthier. Invest in a scrub brush, and remind yourself that the dirt belongs there. It’s a reminder of where your produce came from.
Many types of produce have been engineered, through conventional farming practices over years of agricultural study, to be the biggest and the most uniform. We see an abundance of trees and bushes on large one-crop industrial complexes that have been cultivated to yield the greatest number of fruits or vegetables possible in a season. They’re made pest- and drought-resistant through chemical inputs, or genetic modification. Higher yields often mean more profit for farmers, and gleaming displays of oversized, brightly-colored produce can translate into more profit for wholesalers and retailers. But what does the tendency to emphasize visual appearance mean for the end consumer? In many cases, visually “perfect” produce may in fact be disappointing to bite into. When purchasing organic produce, on the other hand, you’re likely to observe more variance in size and shape. This is something that, perhaps sadly, many consumers are not used to. They may find themselves rejecting organic produce outright, because it does not appear exactly as they had imagined. But you’re a person who cares deeply about nutrition as well as flavor and should be prepared to branch out and explore produce that goes beyond what you might have been taught that a carrot or apple or potato is “supposed” to look like.