/ 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?


In response to Mark Shaw’s comment: 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.

The organic regime we followed did include managing the soil which you’re right to say is so important to the organic way of growing. We dug over the plot and added bulky organic matter.

mark shaw says:
23 February 2011

You miss my point, – it’s stated Which took a previously organically managed piece of land then divided it into two and use it for both the non organic and organic trials; thus carrying the benefits of an organically managed piece of land into both sets of results. Needed to take an inorganically managed plot from same allotment for the inorganic half of the trial.

Sarah says:
23 February 2011

I agree with Mark Shaw – you would have needed to carry out the inorganic test on a previously inorganically managed plot. Conventional/inorganic methods tend to deplete the soil. The main three nutrients needed for plant growth – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – are added back by way of fertilisers. But this does not replace all of the other trace elements necessary for good nutrition. By starting with an organic plot you were already miles ahead than you would have been if you started with a plot that had been managed conventionally, with the soil depleted of everything that couldn’t be added back with a NPK fertiliser. Well-managed organic soil will contain these elements.

The other issue is you do not state which types of plants were grown. Modern plant varieties have been designed to be grown in conjunction with fertilisers and other chemical farming methods such as pesticides and the use of herbicides to combat weeds. If you used modern plant varieties in both plots I would expect the conventionally-grown vegetables to grow and taste “better” as they have been designed to be grown by this method.

Organic vegetables are often “heritage” varieties that were developed before the widespread use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, or varieties that have been developed specifically for organic growing.

I only have a small inner-city balcony on which to grow my food (just around the corner from the Which offices in fact) so I get the vast majority of my food from an organic box scheme. They taste miles better than supermarket vegetables. I really think that organic vegetables grown under best practice conditions will always taste better than the conventional equivalent.

Just to clarify this point of how Which? Gardening started out with this trial. We used the same plot of land to carry out our two year experiment. The site had not had any fertilizers, organic matter or pesticides added to it for at least two years. Any plants previously growing on the site were uniformly growing across the site to minimise any variation in soil fertility, structure and potential source of pests and diseases.
Most gardeners start out with a plot of land (i.e. their back garden), and it is what they do to it from that point that counts. Here we could be sure that we had the same starting point and with very little variation between the two plots.

Claire Benson says:
23 February 2011

I grow my own tomatoes completely organically in a garden every year (I don’t have a green house). I only eat tomatoes that I have grown myself never eating tomatoes out of season. Some people think I am being cruel to myself in my bid to eat seasonally. But I think not, they taste so much better and perhaps that is because I know the entire history of how the fruit are grown. My conscience is clear as to their effect on the environment and wildlife and I am in control of what I am eating.

When eating food prepared by friends with fruit and vegetables from supermarkets they don’t taste as good.

Dr Legido-Quigley says:
23 February 2011

I am an analytical chemist at King’s College London and this year a MSc
student in my group has quantified the amount of lycopene, an antioxidant in tomatoes,
and compared the organic and non-organic supermarket canned range at Sainsbury’s and Tesco.
Only one supermarket’s range showed significant higher amounts of the antioxidant in
the organic variety. This means that other factors affect lycopene concentrations
(sun exposure, etc) and that the organic label alone is not evidence of a higher amount of this micronutrient.

Sarah says:
23 February 2011

So, Dr Legido-Quigley, was it Tesco or Sainsbury’s? Wouldn’t you have to test more ranges from other supermarkets to reach that conclusion? I mean, so far your student has shown that one out of the two supermarket ranges tested showed *significantly* higher lycopene levels in its canned organic tomatoes. That’s not bad if you ask me.

Theresa says:
23 February 2011

It would depend on the heat levels in the canning process – nothing to do with the tomatoes – as heated tomatoes have more lycopene than raw ones. Therefore an organic tin of tomatoes would have more lycopene than a raw inorganic one!

Foodari Direct says:
23 February 2011

The article published in this mornings Metro entitled ‘Organic foods ‘not as tasty or healthy’ as those grown using pesticides’ has so far been met with a positive response from our customers.

We had a lot of feedback on the wholesale delivery round this morning with a number of chefs agreeing with the Which? study. Chefs, including those from the Royal Brompton and The London Clinic hospitals, all commented on their preference of sourcing local rather than organic produce. They site the freshness, taste and value for money as the main reasons for moving away from organic to locally sourced.

We have seen an increase in chefs and retail customers moving away from the likes of Abel & Cole, who specialise in organic produce, towards us. Why? Because customers are starting to realise that being organic doesn’t mean it tastes better.

The advantage of sourcing locally is the reduction in time it takes between harvesting the produce and having it delivered to our customers. It is this speed between harvesting and eating which ensures the nutritional values of the produce doesn’t get depleted.

I would certainly agree that taste is better when you eat food as soon after havresting as possible which is why we would really recommend growing your own fruit and veg. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can fit a surprising variety of crops in a patio pot, hanging basket or even a windowbox. Whether you grow it organically or not is up to you.

Jonathan says:
23 February 2011

I keep bees – tell the bees that the fruit and veg treated with pesticides tastes better. I think they will tell you to buzz off.

Dr Jamie Flattery says:
23 February 2011

Very lazy unscientific journalism – where is the ecological angle, the ongoing damage to ecosystems and soil. The tase issue is frankly irrelevant in all modern thinking with regards sustainable land management adopted across the globe. Where are the bugs on our windscreens in the UK? The fact the British garden centres still stock mountains of non organic treatment side by side with bird feed and nest boxes is bizarre and the UK horticultural industry is still stuck in 70s monsanto inspired rut which has allowed the UK to become a regressive and mauvais voice, where once it was the dominant voice and the gold standard industry to emulate.

There is considerable academic, peer reviewed research which is completely at odds with this feeble attempt to enter a debate that should be left to specialists who are able to grasp the bigger picture.

Theresa says:
23 February 2011

Do you know I never thought about the bugs on the windscreen before…there aren’t any, are there? I used to spend many holidays in Brittany where they keep a lot of cattle and not so much grain growing, plenty of woodland though and my car looked like bug massacre at the end of each stay. I live in East Anglia, home to rape and wheat (not pillage but it might as well be…), not to mention beet and there are never any bugs on my car… What are they spraying against? Over 30 years ago I went to my doctor with an unexplained rash on my face and the first question he asked me was “have they been spraying near you this week?” Yet we still keep spraying

John Madden says:
24 February 2011

This discussion is ranging all over the shop, but as for bugs, I have travelled regularly on A roads over 200 miles a day, and as summer approaches so my windscreen gets more and more bug-splattered. Compared with my native New Zealand the utterly anecdotal judgement is that the hit rate in the UK is roughly 80% of that in the buggy Kiwi countryside.
This is just a balancing view, NOT a support for non-organic.

derekjohn says:
23 February 2011

There are five main factors affecting food taste and nutritional quality: variety, freshness, yield, disease taint and weather.
The most important of these is always variety: you can’t make a bramley taste like a cox’s orange pippin, no matter how you grow it. Many of the early taste tests compared organic to conventionally grown produce and ignored variety. Organic growers favoured older varieties with greater disease tolerance, but which had also been primarily selected for flavour, hence many of the original favourable comments. Modern commercially grown varieties have been selected for other qualities (see comments above) and so generally do badly in taste tests. I assume that ‘Which’s’ more diligent and careful researchers took this into account, hence their not very surprising results
Freshness: many of the chemicals that give food its smell and taste are complex and unstable and cease being produced when a plant is picked. These subtle flavours are therefore evanescent and the longer the time from soil to plate the more of them are lost. As you conclude: freshly picked produce will always beat food at the end of a 3 to 5 day distribution chain.
Yield: the same variety, with the same level of freshness, will always taste better if the yield has not been pushed. Good wine growers scrupulously reduce the yield of their vines in order to concentrate the flavours in fewer remaining bunches. If it works for them, it probably works for everybody else. If a field of potatoes has been heavily irrigated the resulting potatoes are much less flavourful than you might have expected: french potatoes (grown last year) are currently watery and bland because heavy irrigation in dry, but otherwise ideal, growing conditions have pushed yields up but diluted flavour (and probably nutritional value).
Disease taint: a diseased fruit tastes horrible. The sort of disease-resistant varieties favoured by organic growers are less likely to develop diseases in the first place, but good conventional growers can keep disease at bay.
Weather during the growing season: think about wine vintages, enough said.
As to the broader environmental benefits, it should be pointed out that most of the more dangerous chemicals have long been banned in western Europe, and are not tolerated elsewhere by the supermarket purchasing teams; so one of the most acute dangers to the environment is much reduced. However damage to the environment is done by both methods of production: a few hundredweight of farmyard manure is just as polluting to a river as a few pounds of chemical fertiliser, remembering that manure has to be spread by the tonne and ‘artificials’ by the kilogram. A few years ago the Royal Agricultural Society of England concluded (after considerable research) that the attitude of the farmer to the environment and wildlife was more important than the method of farming (s)he used. All farming is unnatural, the aim is always the same: to produce a weed-free, disease-free, pest-free harvestable and saleable crop and it doesn’t matter how you do it, a field containing one species of plant is inimical to most other species and very low in biodiversity. It will be true, however, that the soil fauna and flora will be much richer in an organically managed field. But carelessly applied fertilisers, poorly timed cultivations, inaccurate use of pesticides, excessive use of irrigation and poor choice of crop will all cause environmental damage whether done in the name of organic or conventional agriculture/horticulture. Still more damage will be caused by the removal of those pockets of biodiversity to be found in the countryside: woodlands, hedges, old grassland, rivers, ponds, ditches etc; organic farmers do tend to be more careful of these, but this is not a given, notoriously 25 years ago one of the largest organic farms in England was a wildlife desert because all non-farmed features had been removed (it kept the pests and diseases down).
Finally two points: 2 tomatoes you can afford will be better for you than 1 you can’t. Secondly, back in the 1970’s when government agricultural policy was ‘food from our own resources’. the Min of Ag scientists did some studies and concluded that if the UK went organic, and there was no substantial change to the national diet, no significant climatic change and no revolutionary new varieties of crop, we could probably just about feed a population of 25 million people. The spread of urbanisation has probably reduced that figure in the years since.

Monica says:
23 February 2011

Junk food can taste better too – still makes you ill though! Me, I prefer non-poisoned nutrition.

Mike London says:
23 February 2011

Regardless of the ‘Which’ report nonsense you are getting less rubbish in your system when the fruit and veg is organic, handsown,.

Especially when you are juicing these items and the juice is what you are after I prefer drinking relatively untouched organic juices than water that’s bee messed about with and full of metals and pesticides. I don’t eat organics for the flavour I eat them for peace of mind and as far as nature can mange in this day and age

This test did not look at pesticide residues produced when growing in a garden setting.

David in Kent says:
23 February 2011

There is really nothing like an unbiased experiment to inform debate. Well done Which.
Now it might also be worth Which taking a look at the pesticide residues in organic vs inorganic crops.

Maria says:
23 February 2011



Are we supposed to believe this utter rubbish, telling us organic is no better that other food? What next, elephants are spotted pink and yellow!!!!

The results of this admittedly limited trial don’t surprise me at all, neither does the vitriolic response of the pro-organic lobby.

There is said to be widespread fraud in the organic food market and the greatest challenge Trading Standards have is that apart from nitrogen isotope analysis there is no reliable scientific way of distinguishing the organic from the non-organic. Now I’d have thought that if non-organic food was contaminated with high levels of pesticide residue it would’ve been easy.

tristan says:
23 February 2011

It’s not really about taste or indeed nutritional value………………It’s how our farmers are continuing to destroy our soil, OUR soil, by the monocrop culture.

Ever read a book called ‘one straw revolution’, Its fantastic and great. In fact it’s the new bible!!

A guy that goes by the name of Masanobu *******, produces crops and doesn’t even turn soil. Not even pesticide. His reason being that the weak plants will get eaten by the pest, leaving only the strongest to survive.


Oliver Stieber says:
23 February 2011

I think organic is a lot to do with the wider ecological damage caused by the often petroleum based or evolved chemicals and processes that go into growing none organic produce.

Put simply a more natural sustainable way of producing food. I don’t have the egocentric view of organic produce that this article would make you think it’s all about.
I don’t care how residue effect me, or if it tasted worse etc… I do care about sustainability and the environmental impact…. something totally overlooked for some reason?

Donnie Macleod says:
24 February 2011

HI Ceri. I have a few questions for you.
When growing organic crops you have to follow a rotation that builds fertility for future years. You build up the earthworm population and the micro-organisims in the soil. Nitrogen reserves are replenished by growing legumes. Therefore it is important at what stage of the rotation the allotment or parts of the allotment were in when the trial started. Can you advise what the position was with each part of the trial?
Can you also advise what was done to make the non-organic part non-organic? EG what sprays did you use?
Do you know what the effect was on the future fertility of the soil on both sides?
Are you surprised that a small scale trial such as this on an organic allotment is being used to justify large scale industrial farming practices against organic principles?

Sorry I’m not sure which crops had been grown in the different parts of the allotment beforehand. We would query the extent to which legumes replenish the soil – see our previous article n gardening myths.
We applied metaldehyde slug pellets to the soil and sprayed the potatoes with the fungicide Dithane.
We can’t comment on the future fertility of the soil as we did not look into thi as part of the trial as we were not investigating effects on soil fertility – this could make a future study.
Just like anything we test in the magazine, from rakes to petunias, this study was undertaken to give people the ability to make informed choices about what they do in their gardens based on the evidence we found. As explained in the article, the study is about the three specific crops grown in a garden context, not a farming one.
Hope this helps.

OrganicTrade says:
24 February 2011

It is important to recognize that the findings of the Which? Gardening study are based on organic gardening, which is not the same as certified organic farming. As the article itself notes, “Gardening organically and farming organically are very different. There are strict rules for farmers; they can, for example, only add fertilizers to their soil if tests prove that it is lacking in nutrients, and if they state that they farm organically they must have certification from an appropriate body to prove it. Gardeners, of course, face no such restrictions.” As such, the results of the study should not be construed to reflect the nutritional quality or the taste of products produced from certified organic farming.

It is also worth noting that the differences between the organic and non-organic produce examined in the Which? study were small. For example, researchers “couldn’t distinguish any real difference in taste” between the organic and non-organic calabrese or the two types of potatoes being examined. At the same time, they found “there was no difference in quality” between the organic and non-organic tomatoes.

The study also revealed that the produce raised organically exhibited several positive characteristics. The organic potatoes, for example, had slightly less scab and cracking than their non-organic counterparts. At the same time, the organic calabrese was more uniform in color than the calabrese raised using non-organic methods.

Together, these findings illustrate that, at best, more research needs to be done before concluding which method of gardening, organic or non-organic, yields the most flavorful and nutritious produce.

GeoffreyTate says:
24 February 2011

Even in a garden context the damage to soil microbes and the environment beyond the boundaries of the garden are important issues. A gardener has as much responsibilty to the immediate ecology in their locality as any farmer, but unlike farmers there is no regulation asides from the banning of particular products from shelves. One point raised in the comments which has clearly upset some is that real scientific research is at complete odds with this trial – why is there so much venom aimed towards the scientific community? Why do newspapers and other media follow up findings similar to this ‘which’ study as factual proof, when even the which study admits it isnt guaranteed fact and has limitations?
This is making a debate where there isn’t one and I am sorry to say that I agree with all others in that a study which does not embrace the wider implications of pesticide use fails, from whichever side of the fence you stand in – as it is inevitable, whether we like it or not, that such pesticide products will be banned and there is a real sense of urgency to investigate new ‘organic’ or safe alternatives. I hope Which will be in the forefront of such testing for consumer issues.