Are (some) fruits becoming less flavorful?
July 6, 2021 10:58 AM   Subscribe

It's been a long time (years) since I've had a really excellent cantaloupe or a great batch of cherries. Is it bad luck, am I losing my sense of taste, are my memories distorted by nostalgia... or is produce really getting gradually worse over time?

Cantaloupe used to be my favorite summer fruit. I realize that memories are imperfect, but I think that about 25 years ago, I didn't have much trouble finding really great cantaloupes. They were sweet, flavorful, and neither mushy nor hard. These days, however, mediocre is about the best you can hope for.

Similarly for cherries, I find that the cherries I buy today just don't have much flavor. They might be sweet and have a nice texture, but the flavor is severely lacking. I also think that peaches and nectarines are not as good as I remember them in the past, but the difference in quality is smaller.

On the other hand, corn is much better than it used to be, and I like the new varieties of apples (like Honey Crisp).

I'm in Upstate New York, in case it matters. Although I typically get my produce at a supermarket, I haven't noticed any improvement if I buy from a farm stand.
posted by alex1965 to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in WNY and I've definitely noticed a change in apples over the past several years, including Honey Crisp. When they first came out, they were amazing, but any one I've had in the past several years has been pretty lacking. Other apples, too. Empires used to be my favorite, but it's been rare to get any that are REALLY great. Even going right to the orchard hasn't proven much better. Friends and family have noticed the same thing, so it's not just me. I've had a similar experience as you with cherries.

Strawberries and blackberries have been great, though.

I've wondered if long-term storage has had anything to do with it, but that wouldn't explain why the apple I've gotten right from the orchard, during apple season, have been lacking.
posted by jonathanhughes at 11:06 AM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: No, it's not just you. I live in upstate NY as well, but every time I go back home to India, I end up gorging on the fantastic fruit and veg there. I think it's down to genetic modifications in the crop that focus exclusively on getting fruit to look good and have longer shelf lives (not taste). Growing your own fruit and getting your fruit from local farms that grow heritage varieties might help.
posted by MiraK at 11:06 AM on July 6, 2021 [22 favorites]

Best answer: Most of America’s Fruit Is Now Imported. Is That a Bad Thing? (archived link to NYT, March 3, 2018) [...] produce is perishable and may suffer from transport. It may be picked less ripe. Varieties may be selected for durability at the expense of flavor, and treatments mandated to kill pests (hot water for mangoes, cold temperatures for citrus) can degrade flavor or texture. In many fruits, acidity drops over time, and off flavors develop; weeks-old cherries, for example, may still look fine but taste flat. Vegetables, too, can decline. Domestic asparagus, grown mostly in California, Michigan and Washington, tends to be plumper, juicier and more flavorful than the more fibrous and rubbery imports from Mexico and Peru.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:11 AM on July 6, 2021 [8 favorites]

Yes, this is a thing. There is a statue of a square tomato outside the Davis Food Co-op. Food is selected for traits like "will this stay on the conveyor belt?"
posted by aniola at 11:11 AM on July 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Good farmstands should provide better tasting fruits and vegetables. A big part of the problem is people wanting the same produce year-round. Now you can get strawberries and tomatoes whenever you want. The problem is they look okay, but they taste like wet cardboard. Know when things are truly in season locally, and only buy them then from a trusted source.

Peaches used to be so hit-or-miss for me in Ohio and NY. Often they'd seem soft enough to buy but they were mealy and tasteless. Here in western NC, they come into the farmer's market starting in late May through August and they are all phenomenal! Timing and sourcing is key.
posted by rikschell at 11:15 AM on July 6, 2021 [9 favorites]

I've been having this trouble too. At first I thought it was a difference in West Coast/East Coast (I grew up on the East Coast but lived in California, and developed some idea that peaches and tomatoes grown there were unlikely to be as good as Eastern ones) but now that I'm back East I still notice it.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:16 AM on July 6, 2021

Plums are way, way less good than they used to be - even expensive co-op plums. I hardly even buy them and they used to be one of my favorites.

Honeycrisps were designed to be grown under very specific growing conditions but as they've been sold to more and more growers conditions are less and less good. The University of Minnesota attached some restrictions to the more recent Sweetango, Zestar and Cosmic Crisp, IIRC, and these seem more consistent.
posted by Frowner at 11:16 AM on July 6, 2021 [9 favorites]

I think it is a factor of long distance shipping, long term storage, and out-of-season fruit. There is no comparison between local, in-season fruit and veg to the stuff shipped in from far away or out of season at the grocery store.

There are quite a few things I will only eat when they are locally in-season: cantaloupe, strawberries, asparagus, peaches, cherries, grapes...
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:21 AM on July 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You are definitely not imagining it. I noticed everything becoming far less flavorful several years ago and started shopping more seasonally but it hasn't improved much. I plan to try more from the farmer's market this summer.
posted by anderjen at 11:21 AM on July 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

It is definitely, in my experience, difficult to get fruit in its ideal stage outside of a good, highly seasonal and local farmer's market. But I do still often get lucky and end up with an absolutely delicious batch of cherries or a perfect melon. As others have noted, I haven't had trouble finding flavorful berries, but I live in a region where berries grow well locally (and possibly better/for longer than they used to, due to climate changes, ironically), so if I'm buying in-season I'm usually getting good quality.

There is a lot of documentation out there about how apples are being continually modified to their flavor detriment though.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:28 AM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

It seems relevant that all the fruits you mention being worse are those that generally are best grown elsewhere, whereas the produce you find to be better (apples, corn) are grown in abundance in Upstate NY and well-suited to the climate. Farm stands will often have a variety of items, but that doesn't mean everything they grow will thrive in the local climate.

In the last five years I've had fabulous cantaloupe, peaches, nectarines, and cherries - in most cases these were purchased in one of the regions where these fruits thrive, from farmers that make a point of specializing in them (or a few fruits). At farmers markets I make a point of buying mainly from farmers only selling 1-3 items per season. I still sometimes get bad luck, but I generally find that if a farmer is putting all their eggs in 1-3 baskets, so to speak, it's because they've really figured out how to grow a winning crop.

I'll just add: this is where having a small garden (if you've got a yard or access to a shared urban garden) can be great. I am generally disappointed with strawberries (varieties that grow bigger but less sweet fruit seem to dominate) but you can still easily buy seeds for varieties that focus on flavor.
posted by coffeecat at 11:31 AM on July 6, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: From a farmer perspective, I will say that when we experiment with newer varieties of squash which are specifically bred for flavor, they sometimes come through on flavor but require more care and better conditions. And if they don't get it, taste begins to suffer. So it would not surprise me if this kind of thing is widespread in other crops. And, to some extent the "better flavor" is just a sweeter squash.

Our strawberry customers often say that ours are the best they've ever had, including from other local farms, but that may just reflect their fondness for us & the picking experience. I don't think we are doing something special to produce flavor and the varieties we grow have been around for a while.

Personally I agree with you on cherries and cantaloupe. I've been really happy with the Georgia peaches I bought the last few years when they come into season. Mango variety has expanded and taste improved in my opinion.

I am in Minnesota/Wisconsin.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:34 AM on July 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

I think produce buyers and sellers may be better at grading/classifying their produce and pricing accordingly. So the grocery store that pays more for their produce will get a better product. I know that when I buy produce from the more budget grocery stores it is much more hit and miss than when I buy it from a "regular" grocery store. This was something that was really apparent when I was living in Japan 18 years ago: the grocery store would carry strawberries at different price points and if you paid more you'd get a bigger, sweeter strawberry, and that kind of experience over there makes me suspect that it's happening to a degree here as well.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:34 AM on July 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Yeah, tomatoes are a classic example of something that has been bred for shippability/shelf life/disease resistance/etc in supermarkets and lost flavor, hence the popularity of heirloom varieties at farmers markets. Different varieties might explain why some farm stands have produce that you think doesn't taste as good. Though freshness obviously is also a factor with good fruit. I will say that cherries and peaches at the farmers markets right now (or a couple of weeks ago, in the case of cherries) in California taste wonderful to me. I have never had a supermarket raspberry that could compare with a raspberry picked directly off a bush.
posted by pinochiette at 11:41 AM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've definitely noticed a change in apples over the past several years, including Honey Crisp.

Anecdote that I'd read is that Honeycrisp cuttings tend to prefer cold winters, and that the demand for them expanded their plantings to orchards farther away from the North Mid-West, with more variation in quality. So I remember when they first appeared they were mostly pretty good but now they're not. (a bit on the sweet side but hey)

We've mostly switched from buying apples to pears because the quality is a bit more consistent (pears aren't perfect but maybe a bit better). Except that we do get local apples in September.
posted by ovvl at 12:05 PM on July 6, 2021

not overall, but I generally pay close attention to fruit smell when I shop and I don't buy anything that I don't have some reason to think is excellent (apple varieties I trust; obvious smell on stone fruit and pineapple; cherries that I can see are local; etc.)

I never buy regular cantaloupe anymore, only "Tuscan" melons that look ripe, and those are reliable.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:08 PM on July 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

Farmer's market cherries, tomatoes, etc. in California tasted excellent to me; I moved to upstate NY and have found things more hit-or-miss. Aside from the much shorter growing season here, I kind of think one reason why is that many farm stands in NY sell imported wholesale produce from wherever, with their own fruit and veg making up a relatively small % of their sales. Farm stands in CA were more likely to mostly sell their own and maybe some items from neighboring farms that they had a personal relationship with, and the farmer's markets I went to all had rules about where the food came from--nothing from out of state or other countries. So it tended to be fresher at a minimum. (I mean, it makes sense to me that NY farm stands have to use different strategies; this isn't a knock on them at all!) I don't know that my assumptions here are correct, but that's my take on things. I suspect that I need to put in the time to find out which farms actually grow and sell the specific items I'm looking for, and pay attention to when things are actually in season and which specific varieties I like.

That said, IMO NorCal Safeway produce wasn't any better or worse than NY Wegman's produce, with avocados being the main exception.

Anyway, that's a long-winded way fo saying that I don't think produce in general tastes less good than it did previously, but that local conditions really vary.
posted by wintersweet at 12:13 PM on July 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

The food supply chain is weird. One year I bought peaches from the farmer's market because they looked good and the farmers said it was a good crop, and peaches from the supermarket (with a sign claiming they were local) because they were on an absurd sale. Farmer's market peaches: meh. Supermarket sale peaches: best I've ever had. There are two waves of cherries in our supermarkets (in DC), one that seems really early for the crop, and one right around July 4. I've often found one wave to be better than the other, but I'm not sure it's always the same wave (this year's early batch were pretty good). So they do all seem to be hit or miss. Some of it seems to be microclimate + macroclimate and some is just the vagaries of globalism and how long the supply chain can be nowadays. Maybe start saving the stickers that show origin along with tasting notes?

I'm not sure what's going on with cantaloupe though because I can't remember the last time I had a good one and I've mostly given up on trying.
posted by fedward at 12:20 PM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm in Oregon. I haven't noticed this with cantaloupe, but then, the only time I buy cantaloupe is when it's in season... and so I'm probably getting fresh cantaloupe from eastern Oregon. The same with watermelon. To me, they're summer foods, for when they're in-season, cheap, and yummy. I also have no qualms about buying melons from a random truck parked on the side of the road. Those are always eastern OR/WA.

Apples & pears & cherries, on the other hand, I HATE buying in the store. I'm from a region that grows lots of all three. Specifically, I'm from the central Columbia Gorge. The better quality fruit gets shipped out of town these days - it's actually better in Portland than in the groceries in Hood River. Frustrating. Farm stands are better.

But honestly? The best quality ones I get these days are the same as they always have been - a box or bag given by an orchardist or orchard worker to friends and family. There is nothing quite like snacking on cherries all day that a coworker brought in that they picked that morning before work.
posted by stormyteal at 12:22 PM on July 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Apples are a special case to all of this, because varieties are propagated by grafting and some only thrive in very specific climates. It does seem that the stock may degrade as it's propagated, or maybe it's just that the fruits aren't as good when grown outside their native climate zones. Honeycrisp are a poster child for this problem, "Pink Lady" is controlled while "Cripp's Pink" is not, and newer patented varieties (as mentioned above) come with more restrictions on where they can be grown. I've read that red delicious apples were once, actually, delicious, and not just ironically named, but I'm not sure I believe it.
posted by fedward at 12:28 PM on July 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

In addition to the great points made above, soil health also plays a role in flavor. Check out Dan Barber's The Third Plate as a starting place. I first heard about it on Gastropod's episode, Dan Barber's Quest for Flavor.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:38 PM on July 6, 2021

Try buying locally-grown produce when it's season, and I bet you might find some of that missing flavor.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:41 PM on July 6, 2021

I'm in the UK and usually get my fruit and veg from the supermarket. I've been disappointed recently with the flavour and quality. I bought peaches last week that were, somehow, hard, mushy, mealy, tasteless and sour all at the same time. Grapes that were sour. Bananas that were tasteless. A sure sign of produce being picked unripe and kept in cold storage for far too long in a bulk warehouse somewhere. I'm wondering if this is Brexit stockpiling by the supermarkets, who knows...

On Saturday I drove a few miles to a local farm shop where I bought peaches that are juicy and delicious. Fresh corn, beautiful salad produce, flavoursome bananas, huge, firm cauliflowers... Obviously peaches, bananas and much of the fruit is imported, because we lack the climate in the UK. But the farm shop buys in small quantities from the wholesale market a few miles up the road, and from local farmers who aren't growing industrial crops for supermarkets. So they can choose the produce in person, and buy huge cauliflowers and cabbages that are too big to fit the smaller sizes the supermarkets demand, celery that's too dark a green, pears that are the 'wrong' shape and sell them fresh because they don't have the facilities to store produce for weeks or months on end.

I've also found better quality produce at the local small independent Turkish/International supermarkets, again probably because they buy in small quantities in person at the wholesale markets for consumption in the next week or two. The tomatoes at my local Turkish market smell divine and are full of flavour.

So I would agree with everyone who says search out farmer's markets and buy your produce from stands where the growers concentrate on one thing and do it well, and I'm sure you'll find the cantaloupe of your youth again.

Now I'm gonna eat me a peach. One that doesn't come in a can that was put there by a man.
posted by essexjan at 1:00 PM on July 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm in Upstate New York, in case it matters.

Absolutely it matters. I'm spoiled here in Sacramento -- we went to a local orchard to pick cherries a couple months ago, they were incredible. Several different kinds, too. But that's only for a few weeks of the year, when they're in season. That's the thing about today's supermarket in the USA -- they have almost everything, regardless of the season. Seeing that, we become disengaged from the local, seasonal produce cycle. Here in California, the fruit I see in Safeway seems mostly to come from South America. Traveling so far, it's gotta lose something.
posted by Rash at 1:06 PM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I had the best cantaloupe of my life last summer, +1 searching for a grower who loves cantaloupe / specializes. Pay attention to the variety so you can get it again if you like it - I have particular berry / melon / tomato cultivars that I really like and some popular ones that I think are gross. Stage of ripening affects flavor a lot, too, learn what to look for (ideally, fruit should smell delicious in the store, too). If you have u-pick options, they’ll probably have some good varieties you can sample.

Buy sale grocery store produce at your peril. Even if it’s in season, I’m almost always disappointed by sale fruit. I also just don’t buy peaches because I don’t live in peach country, thems the breaks.
posted by momus_window at 1:31 PM on July 6, 2021

"Practically all of the cantaloupes now grown in California's Imperial Valley, the greatest melon-producing district in the country, are of special strains recently produced by plant breeders to resist the disease called powdery mildew." (source Texas A & M agricultural extension).

Perhaps it's the fault of powdery mildew?
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:35 PM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Peach and nectarine season in California is a cherished time of year, I make a weekly pilgrimage to the local farmers market and buy a big bag every weekend. Overall, yellow nectarines have been the best so far this summer. Even when in season, however, and even within the same variety from the same farmer, the flavor of each fruit can vary.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:46 PM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Home gardener here who just suffered a terrible heirloom tomato season in TX.

While longer cold chains, selective breeding/genetic modification for things other than flavor, and all that mentioned above are the dominant reasons, don't discount year-to-year variation. There have been good years and bad years for wine for hundreds of years because of the amount of rain and average temperatures leading up to and during grape harvest. Same for everything else, we just don't remark as much on whether 2019 was a good cantaloupe year. Too much late season rain dilutes sugars in fruits, and my home grown tomatoes were bland garbage because we had the third wettest spring on record in my climate. Precipitation and temperature change the flavors of many vegetables but particularly summer fruits or veg with complex sugar compounds contributing to their flavor. Climate change is causing bigger storms and temp fluctuations that in some cases may hurt the flavor of the final product or force a farmer to harvest early to avoid a total loss.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:14 PM on July 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: All of the above

Your sense of smell is steadily deteriorating as it does in all people as they grow older, and smell is a critical component of taste. Once your sense of smell goes, fruit will be tart and sweet but telling the difference between cherries and strawberries and raspberries and plums by taste will become very difficult. There are significant downsides to surviving over the age of one hundred but you don't have to be one-hundred to realise that things don't taste like they used to.

Food is being bred to survive long transit which means peak ripeness and perfection is not a thing.

Food is being shipped greater distances so it is likely to be more weeks away from the date it was picked. You can eat a three month old red pepper if it has been properly refrigerated and kept, but it sure won't taste like one you just picked.

Food is being chemically ripened or stored in sleepers to prolong the season even if it didn't get shipped a thousand miles.

Many original breeds are no longer available for multiple reasons. Bananas are the best known example of this.

Agribusinesses use a lot of chemical fertilizer to hide soil exhaustion - ammonium nitrate does a good job of producing perky green crops - but nitrogen is just one a vast range of nutrients that the plants need for optimal produce.

The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is encouraging plants to grown bigger and bushier and heavier and more lovely looking - but the actual nutrient in the produce isn't keeping up. The same field that used to produce 1000 bushels of tomatoes may be producing 1200 bushels of tomatoes but the amount of lycopenes in those tomatoes may be staying constant so that each individual tomato has a significant drop in the micro-nutrients.

For whatever reason the microbiota in the soil is suffering significant decreases in many areas. Just as your microbiome affects your gut health, the microbiome of the soil is going to affect the health of the plants.

Different types of stress will change the flavour of the produce - lettuce that is grown in hot weather turns bitter compared to lettuce that is grown in cool weather, for example. Agribusinesses are making decisions that will protect their investment and reducing the stress on their plants, but that in turn will reduce subtle nuances that you may enjoy.

Nice fruit and produce may be being diverted from your area, either because they command a premium price, or because they are at risk of spoiling are sent to a location that reduces that risk. Your fruit wholesaler maybe far prefer sending four box cars of strawberries to a jam factory than to the retail stores, as the jam factory can process the lot quick enough to make use of all of it, while the retailers and their customers will be grumpy when every second box of berries has mouldy ones in it. The use of spreadsheet programs has made a huge difference in efficiency this way.

If you are American you expect to get produce cheaply, unlike in other parts of the world where you wouldn't blink at the idea of ten percent of your income going to fruits and vegetables. The same squeeze that is resulting in merchandise being more and more junky is resulting in produce being more and more junky also. If the strawberries are lacking it is considered quite acceptable to douse them in sugar to cover this up. So the poor quality is not resulting in people either not buying or being willing to pay a lot more. There is no pressure on the growers to produce nutrition and flavour, only weight. 1,200 lbs of tasteless tomatoes can be sold for as much as 1,200 of good ones.
posted by Jane the Brown at 2:41 PM on July 6, 2021 [9 favorites]

Asparagus is a spring crop. We just had some from the supermarket. It was from Peru. What season is it in Peru?
posted by SemiSalt at 3:48 PM on July 6, 2021

I have noticed this as well. Have stopped paying the Honeycrisp premium, and they used to be my favorite. I'm also routinely disappointed by blueberries -- as a child, I would easily eat a pint or two a day (my family joked that I would turn into Violet Beauregard) and now they all seem mealy and grainy, even in season. Clementines are hit-or-miss.

Surprisingly, the best produce in my area is from Aldi. Not sure who their supplier is, but they are better even than the farmers market.
posted by basalganglia at 12:11 AM on July 7, 2021

Basically what fimbulvetr said.

I would add that my local (DC) farmer's market is only allowed to carry produce from within a certain distance and only ever has things when they're in season. Everything is very pricey, but it is generally worth it, to the point that there are a number of things (including all stone fruit) I will no longer buy out of season or at the supermarket. I just buy less. I can testify that at least in the mid-Atlantic, it is entirely possible to get cantaloupe, cherries, peaches, and apples that are every bit as good as the best I've ever had.

I've also noticed that I enjoy things a lot more when I take a seasonal approach. Like I was basically checking the market every week to see when peaches would show up, then checking two weeks later to see when bruised ones would start getting marked down.

As an aside I'd guess it's a little early for cantaloupe in NY isn't it? Mine are never really ripe until August.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:30 AM on July 7, 2021

The consolidation of grocery stores and reduction in autonomy given to produce manager is another challenge. The cherry farm that I worked for years ago in Michigan used to be able to sell cherries (often picked the same day) directly to grocery stores all over the place, but many large chains didn't allow the individual managers to make such purchases, instead only allowing national purchases. Hence, you would see big grocery stores, sometimes within sight of a cherry orchard, that only sold cherries from Washington. I would guess that this trend has only accelerated with consolidation in the grocery industry.
posted by rockindata at 10:24 AM on July 8, 2021

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