uglyproduceby 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 thecarrots 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. Its 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.

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