The Taste of Organic

usda_organic_logoI’m going to open with being nerdy because I can’t help myself:

Organic food labels exist to tell us about the practices used to produce a food item. There’s a federal list of acceptable / not acceptable practices for organic certification. An interested consumer can look those up and know precisely what an organic label means.  The summary for crops, for example, is:

The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Producers without the organic label may still be meeting these standards, but have chosen not to get certified.Certification involves paperwork and expense. Some producers see an organic label as a stand-in for a system where consumers purchase from farms in their community and, if they want to know the practices a farmer uses, they ask. In either case (officially certified or not) there’s a certain amount of information that we the consumers can’t figure out on our own. We need someone else to tell us what went into producing a food. that needs to be provided to the customer by a third party because we can’t determine on our own how that food was produced.

Think about the types of labels that, unlike organic, indicate something you or I could figure out without any help. “Delicious!” is a description I can evaluate on my own by tasting the food carrying a “Delicious!” label (not, by the way, a legally recognized term). Labels like “now with bigger chocolate chips” aren’t necessary if I can see the chips and remember how big they used to be. But whether a farmer used sucrose octanoate esters (allowed) or nicotine sulphate (not allowed)? That I won’t know without someone telling me. I don’t taste or see the sucrose octanoate.   Even if we can logically think about “organic” as an attribute we’re told, but don’t directly experience through taste, many people still assume that “organic” relates to flavor. That’s a natural assumption – it’s food, when we see one food is marked as different than another our brain goes automatically to flavor. There’s research on this. For example this study from Cornell presented participants with the same food, one sample labeled organic and the other not, then recorded their evaluation of the flavor of each (organic foods tasted better and also healthier). It’s not just “organic”, food labels in general prime us to taste a difference . . . researchers will never get tired of applying different labels to the same wine and seeing who tastes a difference. I particularly like Brian Wansink’s now-classic North Dakota experiment in which getting a wine “from North Dakota” vs the same wine “from California” changed the diner’s experience of not just wine but their entire meal.

But is there truly no taste difference for organic, holding everything else (variety of produce, distance traveled, time in storage, etc.) constant?

National Geographic got me wondering with this story “Organic Foods Are Tastier and Healthier, Study Finds.” The short version: foods raised organically face more stresses from their environment, their reactions to these stresses (like creating more antioxidants) changes / intensifies their flavor. I wrote an article on dandelion greens that made the same point, this time in comparing garden-raised vs. wildcrafted foods. In Italy they intentionally keep tomatoes in drought conditions to intensify their flavor. So, the premise made sense.

As soon as I’d gotten used to a new attitude towards organic and flavor, I came across two opposite stories.

The 2014 Best of Food Writing excerpts “The 16.9 Carrot” from Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate. In this piece, he’s measuring sugar content in carrots after paying obsessive attention to the health of the soil in which they’re raised. The punch line (spoiler alert) is that while his farm produces super intense, sweet carrots, a large-scale organic farm has carrots that get abysmally low sugar concentration scores and tepid taste to match. (Dan Barber, by the way, quite into his carrots – you can see that in this recipe for carrots with lamb accompaniment).

Then I listened to this Spilled Milk Podcast where the reaction to sour cream from a major organic company was Not Good. Along the same lines, I recently threw out chicken broth from an expensive organic brand because it tasted like a weak tea in which someone had dissolved dog kibble. These are processed organic products, not the whole ingredients from the National Geographic study or Dan Barber’s work, so it may be a bit of comparing apples and oranges. . . yet still a good reminder that the word “organic” technically says nothing about flavor.

The simple lesson here is “taste the damn carrot / dandelion greens / sour cream / chicken broth and then decide how you feel about it.”

But there’s a bigger takeaway, too. Production practices, down to the inner workings of the soil, do affect the flavor of the food. At the same time, here in the U.S. we don’t have a very good way of talking about that connection between a farm’s production practices and flavor. Mostly we have the flavor-impact conversation when something has gone wrong in production Nevertheless, our instinct to bundle flavor conclusions in with labels like “organic” shows an interest in explicitly making the connection. It’s still a long way from here to there.

P.S. I get into details about labels, “artisan” and “local” in particular, and what they say about flavor in my book Discovering Flavor that comes out this spring from 99: The Press. There, you can even learn the profound legal significance of the Idaho Potato. It’s all of food appreciation in a mere 99 pages. Prepare your bookshelf.

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