Does organic produce taste better than conventional?
January 22, 2014 12:04 PM   Subscribe

The other day I bought some yellow bell peppers at my local grocery store at a discount. When I went to cook them, I noticed they had a much stronger flavor than I expected, which was more complex and tastier to boot. When I looked at the little sticker that was on them I saw that they were labeled organic. I was cutting up some conventionally farmed green peppers at the same time, and compared to the yellow ones they barely had any flavor at all, and a very superficial flavor at that.

So is it generally the case that organic produce has a better flavor than non-organic, or at least a flavor that is different? Was the higher flavor intensity and complexity of my yellow pepper a result of organic growing methods? If so, then why would this be?
posted by sam_harms to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, yellow bell peppers have a very different taste from green bell peppers to begin with.
posted by Cosine at 12:08 PM on January 22, 2014 [28 favorites]

The answer is totally going to be "it depends". Who farmed and where it was farmed and the exact nature of the vegetable you're buying is going to have a greater influence then purely if its "organic"
posted by bitdamaged at 12:11 PM on January 22, 2014 [16 favorites]

It's hard to say for sure, because there's a 'halo effect' with organics, where people tend to say identical food products taste better when marked as organic, than when they aren't.

Having said that, though, in my shopping and cooking experience, yes, several types of veggies taste better when organic (I'm thinking here about berries and greens especially), although I couldn't say why...maybe normal varieties are more about maximizing yield, so are less flavorful?
posted by mittens at 12:12 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're going to be getting a lot of passionate argument either way about this; what I have in terms of information to offer is a theory only.

The term "organic" is kind of becoming a catch-all, and technically covers a pretty broad umbrella. In the USA, for a food to be labelled "organic", it has to have been produced by a farm or food processing plant that fit USDA regulations. In terms of produce, that means that (according to Wikipedia) "must be free of artificial food additives, and are often processed with fewer artificial methods, materials and conditions, such as chemical ripening, food irradiation, and genetically modified ingredients. Pesticides are allowed as long as they are not synthetic."

What Cosine says about yellow and green peppers tasting different anyway is true. But I'm also inclined to think that maybe the particular farm that pepper came from may have been growing a variety of yellow pepper that usually doesn't get shipped to supermarkets, in an effort to comply with the "biodiversity" part of the regulation. See - a lot of the produce that's been commonly sold to big supermarkets has been selected for its shelf-stability - it doesn't rot as fast, doesn't bruise as easily, etc. A lot of the organic food advocates point out that often, the food that holds up well in storage doesn't taste as good any more, and thus that's why they prefer the organic foods - the fruit or vegetable in question may rot faster or look a little less pretty, but it tastes way better.

So you may have run into a combination of "yellow and green peppers taste different anyway" combined with "that particular yellow pepper may have been better than any other yellow pepper you may have had earlier because it was an heirloom brand that farm was trying to bring back". Again, though, that's just a theory.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:13 PM on January 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Red, orange, yellow and green bell peppers all have very distinct flavours to me.

I don't think it's organic methods per se that give some foods a better flavour. Rather it's the whole package of mass-produced agriculture that tends to produce blander, less offensive products. The variety of pepper they're growing on a non-organic farm is most likely selected for high yield and disease-resistance over other factors.
posted by pipeski at 12:15 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience certain organic produce items are noticeably better or at least different from conventional. I think almost all fruit is noticeably better, and celery is so much better and more celery-like it might as well be a completely different vegetable (but maybe a different variety of celery is more suited to organic cultivation? I don't know). Hothouse tomatoes taste terrible no matter what, and I don't notice any difference either in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, to name a few. As for peppers, I think the biggest difference (besides yellow vs green) is that the organic ones I get are missing the nasty petroleum-tasting wax that I often find on conventional. I don't know what that is but I can't buy conventional at all anymore because it's all I can taste.
posted by HotToddy at 12:15 PM on January 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yes, green peppers and yellow peppers are going to taste different. Green peppers are basically unripe peppers of another color, so are going to have less sugar.

Beyond that, the answer is "usually, but it depends". Non-organic produce won't inherently taste worse, but is often grown with a priority of durability over freshness and flavor. Because organic food tends to be more perishable, it's often sourced closer to you, and has spent more time on the vine as opposed to on a truck/ship/plane.
posted by mkultra at 12:16 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Green peppers are relatively tasteless compared to red/orange/yellow peppers generally, yeah. I think yellow peppers and red peppers have really distinct flavors to begin with.

In my honest opinion and experience, 'organic' as a label has a lot less to do with how flavorful a vegetable is than how fresh it is and how long it traveled to get to me.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:18 PM on January 22, 2014

I have never tried to ascertain whether organic produce tastes better than conventional as a whole, but without a doubt better quality produce tastes much better. And if you're getting your conventional produce at a typical grocery store, then most likely it's pretty bad produce (easily noticeable by just a glace). I do think organic produce must be different than conventional produce, regardless of and aside from tests done to compare different phytonutrient and mineral compositions (for example). That is, the life and growing of the plant must be reflected in the end result. Whether some fine tuned palates can discern taste differences between a conventional green pepper and organic green pepper than seemed to be of equal quality, I don't know, but it would not surprise me. But like I said organic is going to be better quality in general (assuming it wasn't shipped from across the world and is already losing it's freshness), so it's good to buy it for that reason alone.

I'm assuming you realize that green and yellow peppers taste radically different naturally and you weren't making a straight comparison between them.
posted by Blitz at 12:19 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think organic produce may spend less time in storage, which contributes to better taste. I've noticed organic apples don't have that waxy coating that you find on standard apples. The coating helps with longevity, so I'm guessing without it organic apples don't spend as long in warehouses before they get to the store. However, I've noticed the exact same thing with locally grown apples from the farmers market, even if they are not marketed as organic, which is why I think it is a processing issue and not how they are grown.
posted by COD at 12:19 PM on January 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

The variance in taste could be for so many reasons. The yellow pepper could have been fresher than the green pepper. The type of yellow pepper could have been a more flavorful pepper variety as in a Gala apple will always have more taste, to me, than a Red or Yellow Delicious apple regardless of organic/conventional growing methods. I get vegetables in the summer from a local organic farm and am blown away by the difference because they are just recently picked and while they can last for weeks in the refrigerator the taste becomes noticeably lesser, broccoli in particular is a different (vegetarian) beast altogether when fresh. A couple other of these organic vegetables never measure up to even conventional choices I think due to the local climate not being conducive: watermelon, winter squash, garlic.
posted by RoadScholar at 12:19 PM on January 22, 2014

My impression is that a LOT of organic produce is grown and shipped with the expectation that the people who buy it are looking for better-quality stuff. It's not so much that the organic nature of the product makes it taste better, it's that it is grown and handled with more care. Like, an organic cotton tee shirt from a high-end maker is going to be nicer than a conventional cotton tee from Wal-mart, but not because it's organic.

What I have noticed about bell peppers from the co-op as opposed to the grocery store is that they tend to have better texture, to be larger and to be at a better point of ripeness. (And I get grocery store peppers most of the time.) Grocery store bell peppers are often more water-logged seeming and they're older - occasionally even have mold in the inner cavity (ick!).

Organic produce from the grocery store (as opposed to Whole Paycheck or the co-op) tends to be somewhere inbetween - nicer than conventional, but not as nice as co-op. I sure wouldn't mind being able to afford the co-op all the time, but I'd have to spend more than twice as much on vegetables and I just can't afford it.
posted by Frowner at 12:20 PM on January 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've noticed the exact same thing with locally grown apples from the farmers market, even if they are not marketed as organic, which is why I think it is a processing issue and not how they are grown.

COD, even if the farmer's market apples are not marked as "organic", they are going to be grown differently than on a big-agribusiness type farm.

Also, if a farmer implements some organic methods but not others, they can't legally label the apples as organic. Some farmer's markets enforce that, as well.
posted by yohko at 12:29 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Green peppers and yellow peppers are very very different from each other regardless of how they're grown.

But more generally: we get a lot of our produce from a local no-pesticides hippie-dippie more-organic-than-thou CSA. Some of it tastes TREMENDOUSLY better than what you can get in the store (tomatoes most obviously); for others there's honestly not a whole lot of difference in flavor. (Peppers are one of the things where there's less of a difference IMHO.)

Grocery store "organic" foods are not that. Flavorwise, they're mostly pretty similar to the regular grocery store stuff.

When you're growing food that you know needs to be shipped long distances, stored long periods of time, etc., you have to (A) choose varietals that will survive the packing and shipping process without bruising, and often (B) pick them early so they aren't rotten by the time they reach the store. In both of those you're generally trading flavor for sturdiness. (Also they tend to choose varieties that will have even color, no lumps, etc., because people won't buy a lumpy ugly weird colored tomato even if it's delicious.)

If, on the other hand, you're growing food that will be eaten within days of being picked, you can choose varieties that taste better but are more fragile, and can let them ripen properly. Nothing you're going to find in a grocery store is going to fit this category -- you either have to find a local farm or go to a farmer's market.

Grocery store food labeled as "organic" may be sourced a bit more locally than the "non-organic" stuff in the next bin, and the price premium means they can afford to choose somewhat tastier varieties than they might otherwise and treat them more carefully in shipping -- but they're still going through a lot of the same industrialized shipping process as everything else.
posted by ook at 12:35 PM on January 22, 2014

Our organically-farmed CSA carrots taste fantastic. So much sweeter and more flavorful than any I've ever bought in a store. However, they are not of uniform shape and size, and they must be inspected closely to make sure all the bug-nibbled parts are removed. I suppose the fairest test would be to try carrots from the grocery store labelled 'organic' to see if there's a difference there. I suspect there still would be.
posted by mimo at 12:38 PM on January 22, 2014

Anyone selling at a farmer's market is likely growing near by and on a small-er scale. They can choose varieties that taste good, rather than that ship well - two qualities that to some extent are mutually exclusive. This produce is also more likely to have ripened in the sun, on the plant, and have been picked within a day or two. These farmers are often also organic, certified or not.This is the food I can tell tastes better.

Organic helps, and may be part of the explanation. Every once in a while I get something amazing at a grocery store too.

Green, yellow, and red peppers are all the same pepper at different stages...unripe, med, and ripe.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:48 PM on January 22, 2014

I don't buy many organic veggies but the ones I do buy organic I won't buy non-organic because of the taste difference. Cilantro is the best example I can think of. Just do a sniff test! Other examples: berries are almost always better when organic, organic pomegranates are much better. I'll pay the difference for those things.

I can tell the difference between organic and non organic carrots and celery but not enough to pay the price difference, probably because these go in soups or casseroles in my house as opposed to being eaten raw. Grocery store tomatoes (even organic) almost always taste flavorless to me. I'd much prefer farmer's market tomatoes, or one's grown by a neighbor or friend. I don't care about the difference between organic and non organic bell peppers at all. There is some kind of trick about the number of bumps on the bottom of a bell pepper that supposedly tells whether the pepper is better for cooking or eating raw. I'll eat a yellow or orange pepper like an apple though. MMMmm. I love them.
posted by dchrssyr at 1:00 PM on January 22, 2014

I've bought a range of different types of produce over the years, from conventional to organic to farmer's market to heirloom varieties to extras from friends' gardens.

I don't find that there's any difference between conventional and organic in a supermarket when comparing the same varieties.

The bigger differences are in farmer's market/CSA and homegrown produce, especially if you can get heirloom varieties. For one thing, if you're picking out of your own garden, things ripen a lot more naturally. You can go outside, look at your orange tree, and pick the ripest one. As opposed to large scale commercial farming, where the harvest happens on one date, usually one that picks the produce long before it's had time to naturally ripen. Meanwhile, truck farmers have much shorter distances to travel, so they're able to harvest much closer to the date the food will actually be sold.

I mentioned heirloom varieties. You know how a Honeycrisp apple tastes a million times better than a Red Delicious apple? Well, for any fruit or vegetable you can think of, there are dozens if not hundreds of varieties. Most supermarkets only sell a few. With the trend for organic, you're seeing a little bit more variety (the Honeycrisp thing, brown and green tomatoes, etc), but if you garden at home or have a truck farm, you can tailor your planting to your own taste (or the taste of a small local clientele). If there's a weird local variety of produce you know you like, or you know your customers want, you can grow that rather than the variety that the major farmers grow.

But an organic green bell pepper from the supermarket is going to taste identical to a conventional green bell pepper from the supermarket.
posted by Sara C. at 1:01 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think an organic grower may choose to raise a different cultivar or variety of a given vegetable, which may have a different or better flavor than a mass-market one. Think of heirloom tomatoes versus the tasteless supermarket kind.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:08 PM on January 22, 2014

If you're curious you could easily test this at home. You could do a blind test, where the tester gives you, say, twenty different pairs of slices of organic and nonorganic produce and you say which one you prefer the taste of. It would be pretty easy and potentially save you hundreds of dollars on organic produce or allow you to discover that organic produce is absolutely worth the extra money. You could also make it into a dinner party game where guests try to guess which slice is organic and which slice isn't. You could even round it out with blind wine tastings between $5 and $25 bottles. Everyone would go home smarter.

I did something similar in college with light beer, as some people had strong affinities for Miller Lite but couldn't stand Bud Lite, which I thought was ridiculous and I proved was ridiculous as cheap light beer all tastes exactly the same.
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 2:01 PM on January 22, 2014

MeFis argue about this topic -- whether organic is worth the price or is any healthier -- on a regular basis.

I will tell you this is exactly why I switched over to organic produce a long time ago. In my experience, it really does taste better, no matter what the particular fruit or vegetable. Even better, in my opinion, is organic and local produce, which tends to burst with flavor. There are other reasons I'm a locavore who eats organic, but taste is the number one.
posted by bearwife at 2:32 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Who farmed and where it was farmed and the exact nature of the vegetable you're buying is going to have a greater influence then purely if its "organic"

Yes - I've noticed dramatic differences in seemingly identical produce at the grocery store week to week. So you might have gotten a particularly good or bad batch of either pepper.

I haven't noticed that organic produce in the grocery store tastes very different, but a lot of local produce (which is often organic) tastes far, far better than grocery store produce. Local tomatoes, broccoli and carrots in particular are fantastic. I'm guessing it's because a lot of grocery store produce is picked when green, unlike the local stuff. So maybe your organic pepper was locally grown (if you live somewhere warm now!).
posted by randomnity at 2:57 PM on January 22, 2014

Well, yellow bell peppers have a very different taste from green bell peppers to begin with.

Yeah, I thought of that, but it wasn't just that the flavor was different, or that one was more sweet than the other, but that the one had a great depth and complexity of flavor, while the other just tasted flat and insipid, almost unlike food at all. Not to be too dramatic, but when I bit into the yellow pepper my there was an underlying flavor that my unconscious immediately recognized as an essential component to all bell peppers, some flavor from far back into my childhood, which I knew the green was supposed to have too. My tongue was pretty annoyed when it didn't.

But perhaps my memory and my senses are playing tricks on me. I do have one more of the organic yellow ones left, so tomorrow or the next day I'll probably go buy a conventional yellow one and compare the flavor. Maybe I'll even enlist a friend to administer the test to me blind, like Luminiferous Ether suggests.
posted by sam_harms at 3:03 PM on January 22, 2014

Oh, and both peppers were from Mexico.
posted by sam_harms at 3:04 PM on January 22, 2014

My inexpert personal opinion: my gut feeling is that a lot of produce from Mexico these days is grown in depleted soil. I think that if you were to nerd out on pepper flavor and grew bed after bed of yellow and green peppers in your backyard, and double-blind them all, you'd find that you can taste the difference between carefully grown peppers in rich soil versus carelessly grown peppers in depleted soil - that is, "conventionally" grown mass-market peppers. Maybe you could taste the difference between conventional fertilizer and hippy-dippy organic stuff but I am not so sure. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't.

Your organic produce is also less likely to be a strain or cultivar intended for max color & max shelf life, and more likely to be picked for its ability to create Joy-Inducing Pepper Taste.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 3:34 PM on January 22, 2014

while the other just tasted flat and insipid, almost unlike food at all.

Green bell peppers are the worst. That is the answer to your question. They're cheap, uninteresting, and have a flavor that isn't very complex.

I've never had a locally grown heirloom variety green bell pepper, though. Maybe they're the Red Delicious Apple of the vegetable world?
posted by Sara C. at 3:39 PM on January 22, 2014

The most important thing to consider when buying fruits and vegetables is to buy things that are in season.

Just because something is available 12 months out of the year doesn't mean it's good 12 months out of the year. There are all sorts of methods used to keep this stuff edible for that long. Usually, taste suffers.

In terms of specific items, you just never know. Something things come from farm X and it's good. Sometimes it comes from farm Y and it's been sitting too long or picked too early and it tasted bad. It's too inconsistent to make any judgments. Ideally, you want to try anything you buy - one of the benefits of farmers markets.
posted by Witold at 10:04 PM on January 22, 2014

Probably not*. Watch for a bit, then jump to 11:10, then 14:45, then 21:52 (the corker). The question was about taste, so you can skip the bits about pesticides and health benefits.

*Swearing warning. Penn and Teller warning. Comment should not be seen as an endorsement of Penn and Teller.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:29 AM on January 23, 2014

If you're not too put off by their method & delivery, Penn and Teller did an interesting episode of their show "bullshit" on organics that I enjoyed.
posted by MustardTent at 6:32 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Were the peppers marked down because they were about to turn? I feel produce tastes the best in this sweet spot right before its about to turn, and so if i plan on making something same day, I'll see if they have the fruit or veggie ingredients on the ugly shrink wrapped foam boards on the about to be tossed stand in the store.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:57 AM on January 23, 2014

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