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It is a common belief that the produce sold at American supermarkets is "bland" and "tasteless". For example, the article "EVER WONDER WHY MODERN PRODUCE IS SO TASTELESS?" mentions that:

They look great, but the taste is lacking—why?

After living in Peru, where the food is drenched in flavor, American fare, even organic fresh produce, comes off bland. I call commercially grown produce “non-foods.” Why is modern food so tasteless?

...

Though tomatoes are the most notorious tasteless “non-food” in the American diet, there are more. Apples are sweet and crispy, but what happened to the tang and snap of the tree-ripened apples I pick when I was a kid on the farm? Even summer squash and zucchini, normally more bland than many other vegetables, have become even blander. Lemons and limes are more acidic than the ones in Peru and Mexico, but are missing oils that give them aroma. Lemons are sour because of citric acid, a weak organic acid found in citrus fruits like grapefruit, oranges, limes and lemons. More citric acid increases tartness, but flavor chemistry resulting from more than 27 naturally occurring compounds, suffers.

If you’re like me and love tomatoes and other farm fresh vegetables and fruits, you’ll frequent farmers markets, find a local grower and pick your own, or start a garden. You’ll never regret the extra time spent of tracking the perfect tomato.

So the questions are:

  1. Is it true that fruits and vegetables in supermarkets taste different, when compared to local farms and farmers markets?
  2. In a blind test, do people consistently choose fruits and vegetables grown on local farms over supermarket equivalents?
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    The question presupposes that supermarkets don't use local produce. Many do. So the question needs to be more specific about the comparison it wants to make. – matt_black Feb 17 '16 at 11:25
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  1. Yes it is true that some fruits such as raspberries and vegetables such as spinach in supermarkets taste different, when compared to local farms and farmers markets since most varieties of fruits and vegetables found in supermarkets are chosen for yield, growth rate, and ability to withstand long-distance transport rather than taste.

Fruit and vegetable varieties differ in appearance and taste, as well as their vitamin, mineral, and phytochemical content.

However, whether these findings appear to be a general rule for organic vegetables/fruits vs supermarket versions is debatable since climacteric fruits will change in taste over time. Published research findings on comparing the organoleptic quality of organic food to conventional food findings by Richard C. Theuer in 2006 state that "Most studies report no consistent or significant differences in taste and organoleptic quality." and better taste of organic fruits/vegetables felt by the consumer is due to the "halo effect" of the organic label.

Rex: First, you have to remember that sugar is a part of Brix, but Brix is not sugar. If you go back and study a few later BrixTalk posts, you may spot the place where I commented on the “insipid” label used in Florida to address overly ripe oranges that had stayed on the tree too long. Taste is far more than just sugar. There are acids, flavonoids, aminos, antioxidants, oils and who knows what else involved. If the tree is in poor soil and does not have adequate resources to create what I call “goodies,” that does not mean the leaves will cease making sugar and if the fruit remains on the tree past proper harvest time that sugar will accumulate.

High Brix values may indicate a sweeter taste and also that the fruit will keep from perishing for longer duration i.e. harvest-fresh fruits tend to have higher Brix values.

Climacteric fruits – such as apples, nectarines, melons, apricots, peaches, and tomatoes – are capable of generating the ripening hormone ethylene, after being detached from the mother plant. Non-climacteric crops – for example, peppers and citrus – reach commercial maturity on the plant only. Being somewhat autonomous, from the ripening point of view, climacteric fruits will change in taste, aroma, color and texture as they reach and pass a transitory respiratory peak related to ethylene.

Some researchers also believe that "there is currently no solid scientific evidence that Brix values alone can be used to describe a food's nutritional value" while others feel that "high Brix value does not guarantee a sweet flavor" and "crops with the highest Brix reading will not necessarily taste sweetest or best."

°Brix values are a measure of the soluble solids content of a solution. Sugars are the most abundant soluble solid in fruit and vegetable juices. Soluble solid (sugar) levels (°Brix readings) can be measured reliably on the farm, during storage, or at market using refractometers, which are inexpensive and small. Care must be taken, however, in selecting samples, completing readings, and making use of °Brix values. These values are affected by genetic and management factors. Also, they correlate much more strongly with how sweet a product may taste than how nutritious it may be.

Also this taste difference between supermarkets and local produce varies from country to country which is noted in one Australian supermarket plum variety which tasted sweeter than their earlier bred versions.

Food scientists dismiss nostalgia about yesteryear's plums and peaches. They say their modern supermarket cousins can taste sweeter. The sweetness in fruit is measured in degrees Brix and many of the current varieties are bred to reach high Brix levels. "We have plums that have Brix levels of 20," says Rowan Little, general manager of fruit company Montague Fresh. "Twenty years ago we thought a really sweet plum was 12."

Researchers are now working on versions of vegetables such as tomatoes to have good taste as comparable to locally produced varieties by various methods including manipulation of a genetic switch for sugar production.

Researchers tested over 25 commercial tomato varieties from around the world and found that they all contained the mutation that left them with an absence of the GLK protein. "The mutation they describe in their paper is in literally 100 percent of modern breeds sold in grocery stores today," Harry Klee, a molecular geneticist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who studies the chemistry and genetics of flavor in fruits and vegetables, told MSNBC. "It's a really good illustration of some of the problems with modern breeding of tomatoes."

  1. People will tend to only consistently choose fruits and vegetables grown on local farms over supermarket equivalents in blinded or nonblinded tests because farmers growing for a local market favor taste over shipability when choosing the variety of fruits and vegetables for farming. However, majority of research studies find no consistent or significant differences in taste between local and conventional produce seen in supermarkets except for apples and also this superior taste of organic apples is found in most rigorously controlled studies but not universally in all studies.

Farmers producing for a local and direct market (farmers’ market, community supported agriculture (CSA) members, or a local restaurant or grocer, for example), are more likely to prioritize taste and nutritional quality over durability when making varietal decisions. First, even when the highest post-harvest handling standards are met, foods grown far away that spend significant time on the road, and therefore have more time to loss nutrients before reaching the marketplace. Second, farmers growing for a local (and especially a direct) market favor taste, nutrition and diversity over shipability when choosing varieties.

There is also some bias expected in blind or unblind taste tests when one compares locally grown produce that is harvested and marketed in a shorter time to supermarket produce which is picked unripe and shipped over a long distance.

Valid market surveys of food quality as a function of production system become more difficult when locally-grown produce that is harvested ripe and marketed immediately is compared to produce picked unripe and shipped thousands of miles, or produce stored for months prior to retail distribution. Several researchers have concluded that maturity at harvest and storage methods generally trump production systems with respect to organoleptic quality.

Preharvesting and refrigeration also is found to play a role in the determination of superior taste of locally produced vegetables and fruits.

Normally, farmers pick their produce while they are still green. The ripening process is then induced by spraying the fruits or vegetables with ethylene gas when they reach their destination. For long hauls, fruits and vegetables are refrigerated to prevent damage and delay their ripening. However, there are drawbacks to these postharvest practices. Fruits that have been harvested prematurely may result in poor taste and quality despite appearing as fully ripened ones. Fruits transported for long periods under refrigeration also have the tendency to lose their quality.

  • 1
    "People should consistently choose fruits and vegetables grown on local farms over supermarket equivalents in blinded or nonblinded tests because ..." Well, the question is not if they should but if they do ! – Scrontch Feb 18 '16 at 16:34
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    Tasting sweeter is not the same as having better flavor, otherwise we could simply douse all supermarket fruits with stevia. – jamesqf Feb 18 '16 at 18:37
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    @Scrontch-Research review notes that organic produce will obviously taste better than super market produce due to its shorter marketing time and also harvesting methods of local varieties seem to be based on its superior taste rather than for its sustainability over long distances. I have modified the second point based on your comment! – pericles316 Feb 19 '16 at 5:49
  • I am late to the party, but I feel like some early tl;dr bullet points would help. Because part of the way through this answer it feels like "organic is a scam, buy supermarket" but the other half is "organic tastes better screw supermarket." I got distracted halfway through your answer and was mad at one half, vame back and was mad at the other, Just a suggestion though. – Jake Jun 19 '18 at 3:21
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In most cases this is absolutely true, but not for the usual propagandized reasons.

Simply put, commercial fruits and vegetables are often the end-result of extensive genetic breeding (No, not that bio-engineering "Franken-Food" BS) to produce fruits and vegetables with thicker-than-normal skins, increased per-hectare yields, followed by breeding for much greater drought resistance, heat-resistance, insect and disease resistance, and more. Along the path of breeding in all of these traits, such "trivial factors" as flavour, and nutritional value were left by the way-side.

One cannot go to the "Belchy Seedmobile" at your friendly mall WALLY WORLD and buy the seeds used to grow commercial tomatoes. This is because they are a breed or subspecies unique to "market-gardening," intensively bred to end up with thicker skins and more-robust internal structures so as to be amenable to brutal mechanical harvesting and transport, while still green.

And, that's another factor: Most commercial produce is harvested while still green! This is partially because green fruits are less-prone to bruising. They stop development when picked--- this means that a commercial tomato will never actually, literally, ripen! They are just "tricked" into turning red during transit and storage by being packed in containers which are then pumped full of ethylene gas. This brings about a colour change, only.

Obviously, if one waits until fruit of any sort is partly to mostly ripe before harvesting, the flavours will have more-intensely developed. This cannot be achieved with any commercial fruits . . . the supermarket delivery containers would be awash in pulped fruit-juices when opened, were they to be loaded with truly ripe fruits.

What gets to the market has routinely traveled a few thousand miles, and is several weeks old, and was never actually ripe. No wonder it tastes like the crate in which it arrived!

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims. – Oddthinking Feb 20 '16 at 1:55
  • Also note some of the key arguments here are pure supposition, not based on empirical evidence. Why would travelling remove flavour? Does ripening on the plant improve the flavour some how? How does being "tricked" into turning red have any difference to the flavour as other ways of turning red? etc. etc. – Oddthinking Feb 20 '16 at 1:57
  • Obviously, space does not permit providing the wealth of "proofs" available. Literature from "America's Test Kitchen," for example, says "Do not put tomatoes in a refrigerator because it causes the enzymes responsible for taste or flavour to turn off. In a test at ATK, . . . tomatoes (from the same garden) were compared (half chilled, half not.) Our testers found the chilled tomatoes [lost] flavour." – Fred Kerns Feb 20 '16 at 7:33
  • You make a lot of claims. We have plenty of space for the empirical evidence to support each of them. (Specific links, please, not vague mentions!) If you do not add references, this answer will be deleted. It is not up to our community standards. – Oddthinking Feb 20 '16 at 7:37
  • Studies have been conducted into the taste and flavour of commercial versus "home-garden" produce by Organic Gardening Magazine and published in books by Rodale Press (the owners of OG) in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In addition, "Mother Earth News" has carried at least an article a year on this topic (albeit without the strict adherence to the scientific method evident in the Rodale Press efforts) over the same 40-year period. Further data probably appeared, but I quit looking, after covering 40 years of "proofs." – Fred Kerns Feb 20 '16 at 7:50

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