In the ongoing debate over whether organic produce tastes better and is better for you, a recent study seems to say that’s a definitive conclusion when it comes to organic strawberries grown in Watsonville, Calif.

Organic study isn’t as clear as media portrays

Chris Koger
Food for Thought

At least that’s the mainstream media’s interpretation of the study.

The study, published online in early September by PLoS (Public Library of Science) One, focused on how conventional and organic production methods affected the berries and the soil they’re grown in.

Over two years, researchers (most from Washington State University, Pullman), analyzed soil and conducted taste tests. The results are strongly in favor of organic production methods on the health of the soil.

But the method of production on the finished product wasn’t so cut-and-dried, according to the study, although you might not know that if you relied on the mainstream press for information instead of going directly to the journal.

Major dailies covering the study, including the Toronto Sun and The Washington Post, were unequivocally in favor of organic production: “Organic fruit is not only better for you, but it tastes better, too,” is the Sun’s lead paragraph on the study.

Kudos to the Los Angeles Times, which pointed out that while antioxidants and vitamin C content was higher, potassium and phosphorous content — which is just as important — of the organic berries was lower.

The scientific community is not in agreement whether higher antioxidant and vitamin C consumption is beneficial in a balanced diet or can be absorbed by the body, according to the Times, which also noted that conventional berries were larger, and two of the three varieties in taste tests registered no difference between the two production methods.

The Times interviewed lead author John Reganold, who studies sustainable agriculture at Washington State. He said that most indicators favor the organic berries. While some benefits are noted in the study, Reganold notes in a summary that more investigation is warranted.

The organic segment, of course, is about much more than nutrition. Purchasing decisions are often backed by a set of values that define the consumer.

This is why chefs, marketers, consumers and other organic agriculture supporters sometimes say dumb things based on a blind love of the sector.

A recent example came from Rick Bayless, owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago.

Bayless, speaking during a chef’s panel at the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Conference and Exposition in Monterey, Calif., described himself as a huge supporter of organics but said he sees no value in organic certification because he knows the growers he buys from.

Good for Bayless, who’s helping launch Mission Produce Inc.’s guacamole mix and has worked with Mexican avocado exporters in the past, for believing in strong relationships with growers.

But the certification he scoffs at is the law, as mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He may trust his growers, but without that set of rules in place for all organic producers to follow, it’s only a matter of time before companies cut corners to save money.

Soon enough, the organic industry is battling to maintain its image, consumer confidence plummets and premiums placed on organic fruits vegetables disappear.

Another chef on the panel denigrated everything sold in the produce aisle, basically asking from what planet retailers get their produce.

Those kinds of messages might play well for the foodies and the locally grown movement devotees, but it’s just another example of why the industry needs to continue connecting directly with consumers.

E-mail ckoger@thepacker.com

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