/ Food & Drink

Organic food loses our taste test – surprised?

Colourful fruit and veg

Organic devotees look away. Which? Gardening’s latest research suggests that veg grown non-organically tastes better, has more nutrients and often has higher yields than organically grown equivalents.

Surprised? So were we. And we’d be the first to say that the results from this trial are not definitive – this was a small-scale trial, involving three types of veg – potato, tomato and broccoli (calabrese).

This isn’t the first time that organic food has come out poorly in research. In 2009 the Food Standards Agency published a report which claimed there were no significant benefits to be gained from eating organic. But of course, that was all about organic farming, and not about growing your own.

Health risks of pesticides

However, back in 1991 Which? Gardening was so concerned about pesticide residues on home-grown food that we carried out a trial. We grew carrots and lettuces and treated them with a wide range of garden chemicals up to their maximum limits.

Even back then we concluded that the residues left behind were within the limits laid down for commercial growing, and that they were unlikely to pose any health risks.

Is it worth gardening organically?

So where does this leave us? Like many people, I grow the food I eat organically, and that’s not going to change. I buy into the whole ethos of organic gardening and I accept that I’ll lose a few crops to pests or diseases, frustrating though it is.

I don’t want to douse my crops with chemicals, which for all I know could create a potentially harmful ‘chemical cocktail’.

What about you? Is gardening organically a waste of time and effort, and are you happy to use chemicals when necessary? Or should we all be learning to garden organically?

Comments

My garden is contaminated by leached toxic chemicals – and any food crops would be poisonous to eat – So I am opposed to any form of inorganic pesticides or fertilizers. In fact most of my garden has been given over to organically grown foodstuffs for insects. My neighbours favour decking. The reason why so much of our wildlife has disappeared from the countryside is by unthinking farming methods – and from urban areas by inorganic methods. Taste has little to do with it – profits at any cost is the main reason. Interesting the honeybee is endangered in the countryside but hanging on in urban areas.

At least my garden nurtures the insect populations including bees – which in turn nurtures birds and the small mammals -which in turn nurtures the fox – I have three.

I’m a bit surprised by the test results, but not quite as surprised as you might expect. It should be remembered that there are several reasons for the burgeoning of non-organic farming methods over the decades between (approx) 1945 and now. Most of these reasons are to do with making greater profit for the supermarkets (NOT the farmers!) and some are to do with being able to have produce out of season or having produce which has (literally) an artificially long shelf life.

However, one of the reasons for inorganic farming methods has been to produce foods which have a flavour that appeals to the mass market, a mass market that has largely evolved to like things which are far too sweet and far too salty for our own good.

Assuming that the test methods involved people eating the foods and giving an opinion on flavour then the absence of artificially enhanced flavours, or artificially changed flavours, will be a factor in the test results.

I cannot think of any reason for the disappointing results regarding nutrition though – this seems at variance with everything that history, logic and science would suggest.

The results certainly won’t stop me buying organic from the shops, nor will it stop me gardening organically (both edible produce and ornamental gardening): quite apart from the effect of chemical residues upon our bodies resulting from ingestion, the organic gardening / farming issue is about far more widespread issues to do with the effect on the land, the other animals that we share the earth with, and the earth itself. We ignore these at our peril, or perhaps more importantly, at the peril of our children. Even governments who are determined to maximise profit at all costs now openly state that this is true so I don’t think there shoudl be room for too much debate.

It is important to remember this trial looked at the home-gardener and not at organic agriculture per se.

I do my best with natural pest-control methods – water spray and collecting slugs up manually! I couldn’t think of spraying something toxic on the food I grow, but I do confess to sometimes using the odd slug pellet around new shoots while they get established – once they’re at a certain height I ditch them.

But I’m not convinced that organic supermarket fruit and veg is necessarily better than non. For me, it’s more important to ensure a balanced diet that’s rich in fresh fruit and veg than fuss over whether it’s organic or not.

Georgia Catt says:
21 February 2011

Hello,

I work at the Soil Association, and we’re a little surprised by the findings of this latest research, which seems to be quite limited in scope and doesn’t address the main reasons people choose to garden organically – namely that it’s better for the environment and wildlife and absence of toxic chemicals means it’s also safer for all the family, including pets.

More conclusive research needs to be done comparing organic vs non-organic in terms of nutrient content but a recent, more comprehensive, European study shows that it is mainly artificial fertilisers that depress beneficial nutrients in fruit and veg, so generally all organic food will contain more healthy nutrients.

Organic gardening uses natural processes and management based rather than product-based solutions. Gardens are treated as a living whole system. Organic gardeners use compost and other natural fertilisers to feed and protect plants, not artificial chemicals. The result of this is that birds, butterflies, beetles, bats and wildflowers are encouraged to thrive. A study by English Nature and the RSPB found that on average wildlife is 50% more abundant and there are 30% more species on organic farms than on conventional ones.

Diversity makes the system more robust to external challenges, so more stable. This also allows for more sophisticated and specialist processes to act within the whole, for example niche soil organisms controlling specific pests.

Prevention rather than cure is key. Rotate crops to break the life cycles of pests rather than use pesticides. Focus on the plant and its ability to resist disease. Managing a garden organically is like a conversation between gardener and garden, where the gardener closely observes the response to their management and adjusts practices accordingly.

And finally, as a bonus – The freshest and cheapest way to enjoy food is to be able to pick it from your own garden and with about 30% of our carbon footprint coming from what we choose to eat and drink, a switch to low-carbon food choices is not only fun it’s crucial.

Thank you for your reply. We compared yield and quality, taste and nutrional value between organic and non-organic homegrown crops as these are areas that are often mentioned by those backing one system or the other. As you say, there are many other reasons for deciding whether to growing organically or non-organically and it’s up to us as individuals to make a decision either way.

You can read the full report in the March issue of Which? Gardening but here is some more detail about what we did. Over a two-year period we carried out trials on potatoes, calabrese and tomatoes. We used two areas: an allotment, where we grew the potatoes and the calabrese; and a greenhouse, where we grew the tomatoes. We split the allotment, which had previously been tended using only organic principles, in two, using organic gardening methods on one half and non-organic on the other. In the greenhouse, we grew tomatoes in growing bags: one ‘organic and peat free’; the other the non-organic equivalent.

All the crops were harvested as appropriate and assessed for yield and quality. Samples were sent to a lab for taste testing by an expert panel of eight trained assessors. 194 visitors to the Totally Tomato Show at West Dean, West Sussex also taste tested the tomatoes. Neither group knew why they were doing the test. We also sent the potatoes and calabrese to an expert lab for nutrional analyses.

Hope this makes our reseach clearer.

For me it’s a much wider issue than taste – even if it were proven that there are more nutrients in non-organic produce, there are also more harmful toxins. A balanced diet would include sufficient vitamins, minerals and other nutrients anyway – I’d prefer my fruit and veg to come without potentially carcinogenic pesticides and other nasties. And that’s not to mention all the great work done by organic farmers to improve the countryside in a wider context, whether that’s by traitional crop rotation or hedge-planting.

A much more important aspect for me is organic meat and dairy produce – the rise of ‘superfarms’ is worrying, so I’d rather buy organic produce wherever I can, relatively safe in the knowledge that animal welfare is a high priority.

mark shaw says:
23 February 2011

The basis of organic farming is the management of the soil. To take a previously organic managed piece of land then use it for both the organic and the non organic trials is a skew in favour of the non organic system.

You can’t have scientific data on what tastes “better” – personally I think organic tastes better, because I like knowing it’s not full of rubbish.

There’s more to life than instant gratification, by the way.

This is lazy, inconclusive “journalism” that serves absolutely no constructive purpose. Instead, it takes an entirely subjective and frankly ridiculously limited “study” and draws tenuous “conclusions” that even the author is unsure of, but which may nonetheless serve to undermine organic farming and food without providing any credible evidence in support. Why would any self-respecting journalist make claims that they promptly undermine in the same article based on “research” whose credibility they immediately question? Perhaps this article will be relevant at some point, but it needs significantly more research and conclusiveness before it is worth the two minutes it took to read or five minutes it took to write this response.

Anne Wollenberg says:
22 February 2011

Sorry, eight trained what?

What you don’t say is what they normally eat and what kind of food they have a taste for. Or how you quantified taste.

Sorry the automatic system seems to have removed the word I wrote – a s s e s s o r s – perhaps because of the first three letters!
The team compared the odour, flavour, texture and aftertaste of the crops grown using the two different methods.

Sorry – our annoying profanity filter strikes again! I’ve amended it for you now.

This study reminds me of english lager.

Lots of people like it, lots of people enjoy it, but it is full of toxic chemicals in order to give a consistent colour and head. Some people can taste this (ie Me) and some people can’t.

I think that if you can’t tell the difference, there is no point in changing as it is more expensive. If you can taste the difference (no sainsburys pun intended) then definitely change.

One taste does not fit all and if you think you are saving the world by eating organic then by all means do it.
I eat veg from the supermarket and from my girlfriends Dads allotment. Some things are nicer from the allotment (parsnips, carrots) but others are nicer from the shop (potatoes, broccoli)

‘orses for courses

longley shopper says:
22 February 2011

Yes, I agree with you Dean: each to their own.

Congratulations Dean, we’ve made your above comment our Comment of the Week! It’ll be featured on the homepage for a full seven days 🙂

Now I’ve seen Ceri’s response I am minded to agree entirely with Josh and I’ve got to say that I am absolutely shocked and horrified by the methods that Ceri says have been used and the ludicrously small sample population engaged as testers.

I’m extremely disappointed that Which? has allowed this to go out in their name and I am now likely to distrust and ignore anything else that comes from Which? gardening.

Sorry Which?; you’ve really made a faux pas here and I think it’s going to have a significantly damaging effect on your reputation.

So Dave, you missed the bit that said “this was a small-scale trial”?

It is a trial, to find out on a small scale, what peoples preferences are. This was clearly conveyed at the beginning of the article and what it concludes is that it is merely peoples tastes and choices that are different.

I am not surprised to find that some veg may taste better when grown with chemicals. So I think what you can take from this is that there is no need to eat organic for the sake of it. Try them both, see which one you like and stick with that.

At least thats what I got from the study

No, I didn’t miss the small scale trial part at all, but like most people I saw the headlines first and the headline in this case conveys a starkly different message when seen in isolation or accompanied only by a summary, which is what most casual readers will see.

As for tasting “better”, as I said in my first response right at the top of the board, this is a matter of opinion and sadly so many of us have grown up in a time when things tasting oif what they naturally taste of has been a rarity, so we’ve grown to like, and expect, the artificial version. I completely agree that this may be some people’s preference and they have an absolute right to make that choice.

It would be better if the whole issue was couched in terms of hard facts such as tasting of the natural, unenhanced, item in question or of retaining more (or less) of the vitamins, etc.

Lucibee says:
22 February 2011

Most certified “organic” pesticides are actually inorganic compounds. Some are quite toxic.

What is this statement based on?

Charlotte says:
22 February 2011

At Garden Organic we’re pretty convinced that organic gardening has benefits that far outweigh those that simply relate to nutrition. Here’s what Dr Margi Lennartsson, Head of Programmes at Garden Organic has to say:

These were small scale trials that whilst looking at the vitamin and mineral content didn’t take into account the higher levels of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides that non-organic produce can be exposed to. With the average supermarket apple being sprayed up to 16 times with 30 different chemicals this is surely a worthwhile point to make! People that buy organic produce often state that avoiding harmful chemicals is one of the main motivations for eating organic and any trial that looks at the health benefits of organic food, ought to also consider this.

There is now an impressive body of scientific evidence that supports the nutritional benefits of organic food, for example, recent scientific research has shown that organic milk is higher in beneficial nutrients than its non-organic counterpart. Whilst a European study has shown organic vegetables to contain far less nitrates (linked to diabetes and Alzheimers) as well as more anti-oxidants and phenols such as salicylic acid. Couple this with the fact that organic growing supports biodiversity and wildlife, has a lower carbon footprint and is more resilient to longer term climate change and we see that there are plenty more reasons to grow, eat and buy organic.

From a gardener’s perspective it is good to see that the organic vegetables in the trial yielded the same amount or higher than the non-organic and that they were considered the same, or better in terms of quality. As our membership of over 30,000 organic gardeners will testify – it is quite possible to produce nutritious home grown organic produce without using pesticides and artificial fertilisers.

JW Blooms says:
22 February 2011

I grow organically because I don’t want to infuse the land with chemicals for which there’s no need and the long-term consequences of which I cannot be sure. That’s it. Any health/taste benefits are a bonus and I find the ubiquitous assumption that people grow or buy organic because there’s something in it for them annoying and insulting.

I garden organically not just because I do feel that it is healthier for me and my family but also becuase of its environmental benefits. We cannot carry on poisoning the land and watercourses with pesticides and destroying every living creature in the garden just to deal with a few pest species. Organic gardening is about living in balance with nature and that for me is the most important aspect of it.

Theresa says:
22 February 2011

I have problems with my nasal passages and consequently my sense of taste is very limited, as the sense of smell is so strongly linked to taste. I would say though that, regardless of taste, I would prefer not to be killed slowly by consuming toxins, sprayed around randomly for apparent improvement of crops, much like toxic medication is handed out like sweets regardless of the side effects.
8 testers is a ludicrously small panel – imagine looking for results of pharmaceutical testing from 8 people!!! I agree with the above commenter that Which is falling in reputation and maybe had to come up with this eye-catching headline to get themselves noticed again!
I think that with the increasing cost of crude oil and gas, from which so many synthetic chemicals and pesticides derive from and which will ultimately have a huge impact on the cost of chemically produced food, the organic sceptics might change their minds in the not too distant future.

Caroline says:
22 February 2011

i must say I mostly garden organically is to safe guard wildlife, so it doesn’t matter to me i shall carry on

Debby says:
22 February 2011

I have a list of those vegetables which are supposed to contain fewer toxins even when they’re not organic, like beetroot, and onions i.e. the ones that are safer to eat non-organic. However whenever I buy them I am bitterly disappointed in their lacklustre flavours, and end up going back to organic again, even though I can’t really afford it. Eating flavourless food really is pointless.

So would u eat all the toxic chems on there own? Or do u prefer it with veg? It’s called a no brainer. Wats the point in doing a test in the first place?

Thank you for all your comments. It’s good to know there’s so much interest in this subject.
You may be interested to know that back in 1991, Which? Gardening was so concerned about the residues left behind from using garden chemicals on food we were growing that we undertook an extensive study into the issue. We grew carrots and lettuce in a garden setting, then treated them with a wide range of approved garden chemicals up to their maximum dose. Overall – even in 1991, when the range of garden chemicals available to amateur gardeners was much greater than it is today – we concluded that the residues left behind were within the limits laid down for commercial growing, and that they were unlikely to pose any health risks.
There are lots of reasons to choose to grow organically, but it appears that some arguments are more valid than others.

Philip says:
23 February 2011

In response to Ceri’s *********** that the residues left behind in the Which study on garden chemicals were within the limits laid down for commercial growing and therefore unlikley to pose any health risk, it seems clear that Which have completely failed in understanding the issues. Firstly, who has set these limits and do we actually know what a safe limit (if any ) would be? The reality (as Georgina Downs has discovered) is that the definition of safe limit depends on what perspective it is being looked at and the government tends to base it on the view point of a bystander rather than someone resident. In other words, the safety of these limits are based on someone being exposed in passing to these chemicals as opposed to constant exposure that one might experience as a farm worker or a homeowner living adjacent to land that is being sprayed. In addition, the reality is that the how and why of what these chemicals may be doing to us is almost inconceivably complex and the experimental tools we have to study it are still almost completely inadequate. In my view, this makes it insanely obvious that the best course of action is to avoid them altogether.