Of all the reasons to choose organic food, the one that is the most cited by organic food purchasers is because organic food tastes better. Many people are appreciative of the environmental benefits organic food brings along with it, but when it comes right down to it, their taste buds are doing the talking. Why would you pay more for something that wasn’t more pleasing to your palate? So does organic food really taste better, or is it people’s peace of mind enhancing the overall perceived mouthfeel? Is there any science behind this? Can we actually judge what tastes better scientifically, because isn’t taste subjective? Let’s see if we can work all of these aspects out.
Studies have been conducted on the organoleptic quality of conventional versus organic foods. OrganoWHATic? It refers to the qualities of senses, such as taste, color, and odor given off by a certain item, in our case, food. It is a subjective form of measurement, and the results of these sensory tests have a wide range of variables, starting with whether the taster is trained or untrained in the art of tasting food. (There are beer and wine connoisseurs, why not food connoisseurs?) But then the food itself throws in all sorts of variables just to make the measuring even trickier. It’s almost impossible to get an identical fruit or vegetable that only varies in whether or not it was grown organically or conventionally. Soil quality, weather, how ripe the crop was at harvest, how it was handled after harvest…all of these factors could be marginally different but may cause a wide variation in the final taste of the crop. These studies have also found that whether or not a person knows the food is organic does indeed affect how they perceive the taste. This is called the “halo” effect, because organic is perceived as better, so the taster will rate it as such, even though the flavor may be the same, or perhaps inferior.
However, there is some hard science behind all of this uncertainty – science where we can measure and record quantitative data. This has to do with the antioxidant levels in the crop, and the availability of nitrogen during crop maturation. Organic foods tend to have higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of nitrates. This combination helps naturally preserve crops, but moreover, low nitrate presence in foods has been linked with improved flavor. The lower nitrate levels is likely due to the lack of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that is typically used in conventional farming. Increased nitrogen availability in the soil allows for greater yields per plant. However, there is speculation that this increased yield means that the vitamins and antioxidants in the produce are diluted because they are, in a sense, divided up among more fruits or vegetables.
The studies conducted on the organoleptic quality of organic versus conventional products have consistently found three fruits that repeatedly score much higher for organics: apples, tomatoes, and strawberries. The science supports the subjective tests; antioxidant levels of the organic fruit for all three were higher than their conventional counterparts. All three also resisted deterioration better after harvest. Analysts believe that it is the practices used in organic farming that allow for this to happen, practices such as using compost and cover crops, which allows for the slow release of nitrogen over the entire life of the plant, instead of just at strong “doses” that would come with adding synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Additionally, antioxidants in foods can be lost during processing, and sometimes this loss is promoted by additives that may be banned in organic processing. For example, the chemical hexane is used to extract oil from crops in conventional oil processing, but is banned in organic oil processing; hexane has been known to remove antioxidants from foods. So, it seems that organic food can indeed taste better, not just because we think it should, or we want it to, but because it just might be healthier for us! Our taste buds are judging well in this case!