should you be buying organic?

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A few weeks ago I had the most amazing carrots.

Possibly the most delicious carrots ever. They were sweet and bright and bursting with carroty goodness. They made the most divine salad for my 5 Minute Salads class at the Stonesoup Virtual Cookery School. I was very excited about these carrots.

The thing is they were organic. From the supermarket, but organic.

And it got me thinking.

I’m pretty fickle when it comes to which produce I buy. Some weeks I’ll get up early and drive over an hour to the Canberra farmers market so I can pick the best looking seasonal produce direct from the grower.

Other weeks, I make do with my local supermarket veg. Generally there’s not a huge amount of choice. But I do usually take the time to have a look at the organic section and compare with the conventionally farmed veg. And generally pick whichever looks best on the day.

So based on flavour, should we be buying organic?

Without having the ability to test and compare nutrient levels or pesticide residues, I thought I’d approach the question from the perspective of flavour. At least I do have a decent set of taste buds.

To keep things simple, I picked up conventional and organic samples of three different veg. And evaluated them raw.

Unfortunately there were significant visual differences between them all, so I wasn’t able to taste them blind – I knew which was which.

the taste test results

organic – $5.30/kg
shorter and fatter. colour less vibrant orange
flavour bland. texture very crisp and fresh.

conventional – $1.98/kg
thinner and longer. vibrant orange colour.
wonderful sweet carroty flavour. less crisp than organic.

worth the difference?
No. (A bit of a surprise given my previously great carrot experience.)

white cabbage

organic – $3.98/half
larger, crisp fresh texture, sweet, clean flavour

conventional – $2.49/half
smaller, more compact leaves, crisp fresh texture. flavour distinctly cabbagey but not unpleasant.

worth the difference?
Yes. Only just, given the organic cabbage was larger and the flavour better.

brussels spouts

organic – $18.72/kg
pale, washed out colour, small compact.
sweet, clean flavour. crisp texture.

conventional – $7.96/kg
appealing dark green colour, larger, slightly more open.
flavour slightly sprouty but blander than organic. crisp texture.

worth the difference?
No. Slightly better flavour doesn’t justify the massive expense.

So where to from here?

To be honest, I was a little surprised at just how much more expensive the organic veg were and how good the conventional veg tasted in comparison.

I’ll still consider the organic section, but for me it will still be all about which produce looks best on the day. I’ll be looking at the price differential more carefully before choosing organic.

Of course there’s more to just flavour and price when it comes to your individual decision.

Where do you sit when it comes to organic produce?

winter slaw recipe11

5 ingredients 10 minutes
winter slaw recipe

serves 2-3 as a side

Feel free to play around with the veg in the slaw. Different cabbage such as red cabbage or savoy cabbage are lovely. But don’t feel constrained to the cabbage family. Carrot ribbons, beetroot, celeriac (celery root) even apples and pears are all good.

This is a wonderfully crunchy, fresh salad to serve as a side to most heavy winter dishes. To turn it into a meal on its own you could add some blue cheese, or shave in some parmesan, toss in a few hard boiled eggs or layer with some finely sliced proscuitto.

A madoline really helps to shave your veg as finely as possible. I’ve found the secret is to apply as little pressure as you can.

2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 white cabbage
6-8 brussels sprouts
small handful walnuts

1. Combine lemon juice with 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and season well.

2. Finely shave the cabbage using a mandoline or a sharp knife and a steady hand. Add to the dressing.

3. Trim the base of the sprouts and remove the outer leaves. Shave sprouts on the mandoline as well and add to the dressing.

4. Toss salad and sprinkle over walnuts.


Since we’re half way through the year, thought I’d better check in and update my Now Reading page.

The good news is I’m well ahead of schedule for my goal to read 52 books again this year. Although I haven’t been reading enough food books. Just finished Nigel Slater’s Tender Volume 2. Would love to find something to live up to his wonderful food prose. Any recommendations welcome!

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Gwyndolyn O'Shaughnessy July 8, 2011 at 7:40 am

Only one person so far has mentioned one of the larger factors in flavor: variety.

On Trivia Night, the question asked “What is the most popular variety of apple in the USA?”

My team dismissed Red Delicious (ugh: mushy, flavorless) and Golden Delicious (mushy … haven’t bothered since childhood) right off. We discussed the relative merits of Jonathans (a little too sweet), Macintosh (YUM: thin skinned and delicate, tartness without acidity), Roma (not bad, thick skin, tends to mush), Pippins (sweet, hard to find), Granny Smith (TART!, best for baking, yummy out-of-hand with peanut butter or cheddar), Pink Ladies (not bad, a bit grainy), Jonagolds (meh), Honeycrisps (sweet, similar to Golden Jonathans), Pink Ladies …

After two minutes, we looked at each other and said: We live in Washington (State), Apple Growers Extraordinaire … and wrote in (ugh) Red Delicious for the win.

In short (finally!), be sure you’re tasting the same variety across your samples. the organic farmer may have used a variety bred to disease resistance, where the conventional might (MIGHT) have used a less-resistant and more flavorful variety.

(OTOH, all farmers usually choose varieties for looks, travel and shelf-life. Look at the Red Delicious (ugh): awfully pretty, travels without much visible bruising and lasts forever … but thick-skinned, grainy at best and mushy at worst, oversweet and utterly dependent on pesticides.)

Finally (finally!) take a close look at the “Top Twelve Pesticide-ridden Fruit-veg OMG” article. The data are poor, the science is supect and you’ll have a “top” and “bottom” on any specturm … but that doesn’t mean that either end of the spectrum will harm you. Please visit Depleted Cranium for a review of the method used to determine the relative “harm” of various edibles.

Sorry: end of rant. Stepping off the soapbox now. :-)

jules July 8, 2011 at 10:11 am

Thanks for raising the variety perspective!
I’m hearing you about the red delicious..

And good to hear someone questioning the top 12 article – I’ll have to check it out

Jean - Culinary Topics July 8, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Organic is good for your health, but the main issue is their price very high compared to the regular one. :(
I just hope, the price of organic vegetables will be down, down and down from time to time. Hopefully! :)

Linda Woodrow July 8, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Organic and local (homegrown or Farmers Market) – that’s where you get the difference! Growing organic crops for a supermarket market is just about a contradiction in terms. The poor old grower is trying to get monocrops large enough to attract a supermarket buyer, sturdy enough to transport and coldstore, consistent in size and shape enough to price by the kilo, long season varieties – no wonder taste goes out the window and prices are high. If you find the organic grower on home turf though, selling a mixed batch of in-season produce selected for taste and value and picked the same day and sold locally – that’s when you get the good stuff.

CC July 9, 2011 at 6:30 am

sometimes the difference in organic isn’t just about the flavor to me, it’s about the health of the migrant worker that picked that produce (s/he isn’t exposed to pesticides for 8 – 12 hours at a stretch in the picking process), the land the produce is grown in/on isn’t awash in petrochemical fertilizers & pesticides, the wildlife around the farm (from the bees that pollinate to the birds that pick seeds or crops, to the deer or racoons, etc.) isn’t exposed to continual chemicals and the water supply that we all use/access isn’t tarnished by the chemical run off from the farmer’s fields. I try to keep that in my mind as I pick my organic products at the stores & farmers markets. I, too, try to patronize the local markets as much as possible, knowing the dollars spent with them stays in our local economy and not with a middle man.

Karen July 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm

i rarely get to the farmers markets but do try to shop at choku bai jo wheni can (north lyneham & curtin). last weekend I went for the organic broccoli as it was not only nicer looking but cheaper than the non-organic! bit of a surprise!!

Emily July 11, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Go local! It takes better because it gets to you faster and fresher. When you buy in season, it’s almost always cheaper too!

c. July 15, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Indeed, the variety of the item can vary so widely. Two peas grown in beds next to eachother, both sugar snap, both “organically grown” and yet one is ripe 2 weeks or more before the other and 5x as sweet. I like both, just for different kind of eating.

Also, local. Organic doesn’t mean it hasn’t been in a cooler loosing flavor as it traveled to your supermarket. That lost flavor is lost flavor that just cannot compete with local, closer to ripe harvested etc. etc.

I don’t know if you can get the variety from the supermarket and re-do such tests.

I love that you’re exploring the subject. I find the best tasting ones are the ones grazed directly from the garden. I do mean “grazed” as in from plant to hand to mouth and not even in the door to the kitchen. Then it doesn’t matter the variety, it will always win based upon freshness alone! :D

(although do one ingredient dishes qualify as dishes? ;)

jules July 16, 2011 at 1:28 pm

I’m going to have to try out that place in nth lyneham.. organic broccoli cheaper? wow!

Yes the freshness thing.. so important! I’ve been thinking of how I could repeat the experiment… thanks for the suggestion.
And one ingredient dishes are still dishes – absolutely!
I dream of having a better veggie garden to experience what you describe

Peter July 17, 2011 at 12:52 am

I choose organic because I don’t want to support conventional farming that depletes our soil and has toxic runoff that ends up in our drinking water.

Soil is a living thing. A living thing that dies when poisoned. In USA corporations have great power. More power than the people. Power that desires profit over life. I choose life.

Sylvie July 19, 2011 at 6:20 am

Actually I do like you I pick what looks best and what is available. I do often pick organic. Prices are higher but when it becomes ridiculous I prefer to do not take it.
I like your test I wonder if the result would be the same with fruits ?

joanne longley July 27, 2011 at 8:48 pm

john I buy organic but I also use my own judgement on a day to day basis organic or reg vegies.

Jeffrey Clowes January 30, 2012 at 3:03 am

Your write up is a good model of it.

Getsy Cleary-James February 23, 2012 at 10:47 am

Food taste is important but so is health benefit and impact. I would rather pay the higher price and eat less and worry less about my health overall. Pesticides are very dangerous and living well is a daily occurrence. Also if you think about it….less Dr visits should also be factored in the equation.:)

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