The term organic has become so commonplace that we rarely consider what it means or what it symbolizes to the American consumer.
The term comes bearing a certain promise outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but have we wrongly translated organic from “grown without pesticides” to “more nutritious and delicious?”
If someone were to ask why you threw organic tomatoes into your basket at the store, you might respond that organic is safer for you and your family. If pressed, factors like taste, texture and nutrition might also pop up in the discussion. But is that even correct?
A 2016 Pew Research Center study discovered the main reason people buy organic is health (76%), but nearly one-third of respondents (32%) said that organic produce tastes better. A significant proportion (59%) of people, however, stated that organic and conventional food tastes about the same.
It’s possible those beliefs are misguided.
First of all, what exactly is organic?
The USDA establishes several criteria for something to be called organic. To merit the distinction, produce must not be grown in soil that has contained prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) for three years.
Organic food must also be without “artificial preservatives, colors or flavors, and it’s required that their ingredients are organic, with some minor exceptions.”
Just reading these few guidelines might cause you to believe that organic could very well have further benefits in the realm of nutrition and/or taste.
Organic produce does have certain nutritional benefits
Debate persists as to the breadth of organic’s superiority when it comes to nutrition. The benefits of organic produce stem from the natural defense mechanism of your delicious fruit or vegetable.
“Organic food is more nutritious than non-organic food, but not in the way that you might think,” said nutritionist and proponent of the Candida Diet, Lisa Richards. “Studies have not shown that organic food consistently has more vitamins or minerals than non-organic food. However, organic food does have significantly higher levels of antioxidants.”
A 2014 British Journal of Nutrition study looked at 343 peer-reviewed publications and discovered interesting things about organic food. Because of the lack of synthetic compounds, organic plants are able to produce more phenols and polyphenols that defend against pests, in turn nurturing higher concentrations of antioxidant compounds. As a result, organic fruits and vegetables contain about 20% to 40% more antioxidants than conventional produce, the equivalent of roughly two extra servings of fruit and vegetables per day ― a benefit that comes without having to eat those extra calories.
And while there might not be additional nutrients in your organic food, food rich in antioxidants provides another bonus: They help lower oxidative stress in your system, which left unchecked can lead to diseases such as heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Sadly, there will forever be a caveat to even the brightest of news. “Keep in mind that organic produce can still have synthetic pesticide residue on it,” said registered dietician nutritionist Amy Gorin, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition.
Despite the USDA allowing produce to be called organic as long as the soil used to grow the food has not had prohibited substances for at least three years, “there was one study that showed that organic produce has about one-third of the synthetic pesticide residue that’s found on conventional fruits and vegetables,” Gorin said.
Organic, then, sometimes means fewer pesticides, not pesticide-free.
Organic produce doesn’t necessarily have better flavor
When it comes to food, flavor is everything. About a third of those polled in the Pew survey may have said organic food tastes better, but there doesn’t seem to be any credence to the notion.
Mark Schatzker wrote “The Dorito Effect,” a deep dive into the flavor of our food. And on the subject of produce, he relates organic and conventional food to the relationship between striped and non-striped cats and their ferocity. Sure, some striped cats are more ferocious, but not all. And good luck finding a similar correlation in your food.
“Some organic produce is grown with quality in mind,” he told HuffPost. “But some is mass-produced and generic. For example, genetics play a big role in the flavor of produce. If you grow bland tomatoes or strawberries organically, they won’t taste very good. They simply don’t have the genetic capability to be flavorful.”
He added, “I have certainly had some organic fruit that has been superb, but I’ve also had conventional fruit that has also been superb.”
Sarah Masoni, the product development manager at the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University, is known for her highly developed sense of taste. The New York Times, for example, referred to her “million-dollar palate” in a 2018 profile of her.
“The idea that just because something is grown organically doesn’t in any way makes sense to me that it would taste better at all,” Masoni said.
But finding food that does taste better means making a conscious decision to shop with greater care and a greater focus, she said.
To Masoni, a trip to the grocery store is peppered with expert poking and prodding that leads her to the best tasting produce. On many days, that might mean picking conventionally grown produce if it looks, feels and smells superior.
Taking your time is a tremendous help in all manner of food enjoyment. “People just need to slow down and taste and smell stuff,” she said.
How to find the best tasting produce (even if it’s not organic)
It would be phenomenal to discover a shortcut to finding produce that explodes on the palate. But finding that level of taste takes work.
“For me, organic is really important,” said Tony Mantuano, the chef-partner of Michelin-starred Spiaggia in Chicago. “But it’s not everything.”
“The seasonality is the key, though. If you can get an organic eggplant from Florida in January, it doesn’t matter if it was organic, it will taste better when it’s grown locally and in season,” Manuano told HuffPost.
But he also said, “There’s no substitute for locally grown, organic, seasonal produce. If you can’t grow your own, find your local farmer’s market, meet your local farmers, and find what works best for you.”
James Beard award-winning baker Greg Wade of Chicago-based Publican Quality Bread echoes that sentiment. “The best way to find the best produce is to talk to your farmer, ask them about their farming practices.”
Getting to the best produce takes some effort but, perhaps, creates enlightening conversations.
You might find that you’re looking for the wrong thing. As Wade explains, strawberries are grown to be both uniform and massive, but the ones that taste the best are smaller, packing far more explosive flavor.
“You should shop with your eyes and your nose, and you should talk to the people who are growing the product,” Masoni said.
Learn how to pick that avocado and what that cantaloupe is supposed to smell like, as well as how to store the food, It will have you eating far more pleasurably.
“As much as we’d like there to be one simple label that guarantees quality, that just isn’t the case,” Schatzker said. “For whatever reason, we buy fruits and vegetables — and meat — on a cost per pound basis. There really isn’t much incentive for producers to concentrate on quality when they are paid that way. So, anything we can do as consumers to let sellers and growers know that we care about flavor is worth doing.”
While the term “organic” has become a guidepost for so many eaters, it has limitations. Safely grown food is a great thing, but it doesn’t necessarily yield superior taste.