Everyone knows it. It really goes without saying. Organic is just better, more wholesome, healthier, more flavourful, better for the environment. What’s not to like? It’s just better. No pesticides, no herbicides, nothing bad of any sort. Ever. We all know it. No one questions it. So I suppose it must be true.
But, in the dark night of my skeptic dreams I wonder. Is it true? Is there any reason for it to be true? Does it actually make any sort of sense?
The first question that comes to mind is “does organic food taste better”. Taste is subjective and trying to establish whether one apple tastes better than another apple is bound to be fiendishly hard to do. It will depend on the preferences of the taster, and more variables than I care to consider. But it’s a good question so I’m going to give it a shot.
But first I want to point out the one indisputable fact. Organic food, on most measures you can apply to food, is definitely better than the alternative, which is, of course, inorganic food. The only inorganic foods I can think of that I regularly ingest are salt and water. I freely admit that I would rather a diet of exclusively organic food to a diet of exclusively salt, water and a few pharmaceuticals.
But back to taste.
In about 1972 I spent a summer picking apples in Washington State, USA. I picked on a range of orchards. On most of them the apples were covered with a white dust from a range of sprayings. They didn’t just spray for bugs. They sprayed something to keep the apples from falling from the trees and a wax to make them look pretty. And who knows what besides. I also picked on one orchard that, even in 1972, grew their apples organically. They didn’t spray at all.
One thing that was clear to me was that I couldn’t tell the difference between the apples. They were identical in every way I could determine except for the white coating on the non-organic apples. Once washed I couldn’t tell them apart.
Many years later I was living in a share house. One of my housemates was pretty fanatical about buying organic. One day I was as a local fruit and veg shop and saw they were selling organic apples, so I bought a bunch for the house. I proudly announced that I’d found some great organic apples. My friend looked at them and announced that they couldn’t be organic. Her reason? They looked too good. Too healthy. Apparently organic apples were supposed to have spots and worms and look “organic”. I have no idea whether those apples were really “organic”, but I do know that her expectations about organic apples coloured her experience. To her those perfectly good apples could not be organic and were therefore inferior. I’ll bet that, had she tasted them at that time she would have found them wanting.
What I’m pointing at is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias says that you will tend to favour information that confirms what you already believe to be true. Confirmation bias is who we are and how we live. We all do it all the time, so it’s safe to say that confirmation bias has a roll in determining whether or not you or I think organic food tastes better. If we believe it tastes better we will look for confirmation that it does. If we encounter an un-tasty organic food we’ll tend to forget it.
My experience is that anyone brings out food and announces it to be organic, there are oohs and aahs and general agreement that it’s definitely better than the non-organic food that we normally encounter. While I can recall times when no comments were made I cannot remember anyone ever saying that, no, the non-organic was actually better. I’ve never said that out loud myself, but I have thought it. More often I’ve thought, “this tastes exactly the same”.
And why shouldn’t it? The taste of anything is made up of a large number of components – freshness, moisture content, additives (I’m sure I could find lots of others by doing a quick Google search) and the big one, genetics. The method by which something is grown does not have a measurable affect on any of these. The method of delivery to market could affect freshness or moisture content, but that’s independent of whether it’s grown organically or not. After washing the residual pesticides on non-organic food is very small – not enough to affect the flavour. And besides, non-organic food gets sprayed as well with organically approved concoctions. The genetics of the food is not changed by the growing method. There is no good reason to expect organic food to taste better. But that’s what pretty much everyone believes.
Try Googling “Does Organic Food Taste Better”. I’ll bet you can find a whole lot of confirmation that it does. However, if you try narrow your search to look for actual evidence that it tastes better, you’ll find a mish-mash of results. Some say yes, a little bit better in some isolated cases. Some say no difference found. None say anything definitive. Since there is no clear result the place to put your money is on the null hypothesis, i.e. the evidence doesn’t support the proposition. While it’s possible that organic food really does taste better, there is virtually no prior plausibility and virtually no evidence to support the proposition.
Organic is a method of growing food. It is not a way to change the nature of what is grown. Some organic food will taste particularly good on a given day. The same is true of non-organic food. Based on the existing evidence buy expensive organic food on the basis of improved flavour is not justified. Of course, if your confirmation bias is sufficiently strong all organic food will taste better to you. In that case you should probably pay the higher price and buy organic.
It’s interesting to note that this study found that by simply labelling non-organic food as organic resulted in people reporting that it tasted better.
Of course you might not buy organic on the basis of taste but for it nutritional value, lack of additives or even the beneficial effect it has on the environment. I’ll have a look at those in future posts.
From the Skeptics Dictionary.
There is scant scientific evidence that most people can tell the difference in taste between organic and conventional foods. The bottom line is: fresher is better. Organic produce that travels thousands of miles to market is generally inferior to the same produce from local farmers, organic or not.
Is there any difference between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables? According to one scientific paper, there are several differences:
Based on the results of our literature review and experiment we conclude that there are substantial differences between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables. They differ with respect to production method, labelling, marketing, price and potentially other parameters.