While flavor isn’t directly related to nutrition or environmentally friendly methods of growing, it is important. After all, no matter how healthy the food is, if it tastes bad no one will eat it! So, how does organic food taste? How does it compare to conventionally grown food? Does organic taste better?
First, we should remember that not everyone likes the same thing. McDonald’s manages to sell an incredible number of burgers, and I think they’re awful. I happen to enjoy Brussels sprouts and lima beans, which probably puts me in the minority. Still, most people like chocolate, strawberries, and fried chicken, so there are some flavors we can agree on. The question is, do most people prefer organic food?
Taste is subjective, as a Swedish study discovered:
Researchers from University of Gävle in Sweden offered 44 participants two identical cups of coffee, telling them one was organic. When asked which one tasted better, most of the subjects pointed to the supposedly organic version. (Daily News)
But what about comparing organic with conventional growing? In my post last month, I mentioned that plants grown without pesticides (and not all organic produce is raised without pesticides) seem to have higher concentrations of antioxidants. The plants produce these chemicals as a way to discourage insects from eating them. Antioxidants also give a more intense flavor to fruit and vegetables. Some people prefer this flavor. Others do not.
In addition, plants grown with an abundance of nitrogen tend to grow faster and be more succulent. Those that grow more slowly will have increased concentrations of chemicals in their tissues, and therefore more flavor. Again, whether or not you like that flavor is a matter of personal preference.
How about meats? Let’s look at chickens. A number of studies have been done comparing chickens raised in different ways. Some studies looked at the difference between birds fed organic feed vs those that were not. Other studies looked at free-range chickens, compared to both those raised in cages, and those kept loose indoors in large buildings.
Just as with the vegetables, no clear cut preferences emerged. In some cases, tasters couldn’t detect any difference at all. If they did have an opinion, sometimes the organic birds were considered more flavorful, and other times it was the traditional birds. In at least one study, tasters found the conventionally-raised chickens to be more tender and juicy.
A number of factors contribute to the eating quality of a chicken. Older chickens have a much stronger flavor. When we finally broke down and made soup out of the nastiest rooster I’d ever owned, I was amazed at how delicious he was—and it wasn’t just revenge for the injuries he’d inflicted during his short lifetime. Most commercial chickens are eaten while still very young, which may be one reason they are so tasteless.
What about tenderness? Organic feed has little to do with it. Rather, the way the animals are raised will affect how tender they are on our table. Genes matter too—some breeds are naturally more tender than others. We may consult our consciences and decide to forego some tenderness in the interests of more humane treatment, but that’s a topic for another day.
Does spending more money on organic food guarantee a better flavor? Perhaps. It all depends on what you’re used to.