Which tastes better: Conventional or organic foods? A tale of two apples

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When faced with questions of choice, people default to emotion, opinion, and simple mental models – all of the things considered ‘heuristics’ which allow our brains to not needlessly spend resources when making quick decisions.

Many studies (e.g., here) have broached the topic of the taste and ‘quality’ of organic food versus conventional. Robustly, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), as well as Stanford University School of Medicine compared organic produce with their conventional counterparts and found no significant differences.

Practical effects

Anything considered ‘scientific’ should attempt to free itself of these biases and heuristics as described above, and be based on empirical evidence – real evidence collected by study and distanced from opinion. Figure 1 below shows two single-blinded apples, both Red Delicious; one is organic, and one is conventional. Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 12.35.30 PMWhile food tasters (casual and serious) can be made to think that fast food is high-end organic simply based on its presentation (see this hilarious video that ran on the GLP recently in which foodies assumed that McDonald’s food was organic merely because of how it was presented, here), and several studies have shown that cheaper wine put into bottles labeled of more expensive wine will be rated higher by wine tasters. Or maybe vodka? Here and here and here.

We are our biases, so what does that say about our food choices?

Perhaps the interior characteristics are different between ‘A’ and ‘B’, and Figure 2 shows just that – the sections of the two apples. It’s reminiscent once again of the power of suggestibility in food and beverage industries. Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 12.35.14 PMFor example, in the famed ‘wine triangle,’ expert wine tasters often have a hard time telling which wine is ‘different’ when faced with three wines – two are the same and one is different (a specific example of sensory triangle testing). Another one which stymies even expert tasters is blindfolded taste-testing – often blindfolded tasters do barely better (and sometimes worse) than chance when tasting upwards of 20 different flavors and asked to tell what each one is.

Removing the blind

Finally, to describe the flavor of each sample is almost superfluous and beside the point. Figure 3 below shows the un-blinded reveal of the two apples.Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 12.34.52 PM

Interestingly, regardless of your initial guess of which was which, the psychological phenomena of cognitive dissonance and expectation bias will have you explaining it away in either case; Either you guessed correctly and you think ‘good job, what an obvious test’ or you guessed incorrectly, and you figure that the test was somehow rigged, or the sample size was too small, or the two sample apples were chosen specifically to throw off the guessers. In either case (correct or incorrect), there was insufficient information provided to repeatably tell the difference so it was just that – guessing.

In fact, based on the many studies examining taste differences and nutritional content of organic versus conventional produce, and the incredible level of suggestibility in the field of taste profiling (such as some great work from University of Illinois U-C and Universiteit Leiden), perhaps there is no way to tell the difference. So understand that social ingroups will create their own preference architectures and if you find yourself in this position, perhaps enjoy it for the very fact that biases are altering your perceptions – but don’t take those perceptions as incontrovertible truths.

Ben Locwin, PhD, MSc, MBA, is a Contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project and is an author of a wide variety of scientific articles for books and magazines. He is also a researcher and consultant for a variety of industries including behavioral and psychological, food and nutrition, pharmaceutical, and academic. Follow him at @BenLocwin.

  • Christian Erickson

    Excellent article.

  • Martselina Phillips

    Points taken, however I “guessed” right in your apple test using statistically logical calculations based on observation of given examples. Apple A is smaller and less “perfect” in shape, whereas apple B is large and of typical grocery store shape. Same calculations were used observing the cut apples, as well. Store bought is in a subtle yet noticeable way brighter and looks better “preserved”, while the organic one is more dull and is already showing small oxidization signs. Of course, you could easily pick the worst looking conventional apple and the best looking organic apple, then cut the conventional apple first to let it get a head start in oxidization, only to set my logic up for failure. And yet, you can’t deny the fact that there is an evident difference between organic and conventional foods, because otherwise one wouldn’t exist, as there would be no point for its existence.
    There are many factors we need to keep in mind when comparing the two, starting with GMOs, pesticides and preservatives. You must be delusional to assume that it won’t make a difference in food. The question we are faced with is, whether that difference is significant enough to justify the consumer preference.
    Ever notice how organic markets have a “smell” to them? That’s the smell of food, which is quite encouraging for consumption when you compare to the “no smell” Wal-Mart produce section. Another note to look at is that since organic food claims no preservatives, it spoils faster. That one is a no-brainer. That fact alone encourages companies to buy from local farms not to have to pay the price of long and often damaging voyage of the fruits from far away lands. That in turn means that the fruits are picked closer to the natural ripe age, rather than picked early to “ripen on the way” in conventional produce. Pick and try a perfectly ripe fruit off a tree and you will know that there is a difference compared to the one ripened in the truck on the way from Mexico, whether it is organic or not.
    Bottom line is that yes, there is an obvious difference judging from basic observations and simple logic and you don’t need to be a scientist to notice, and yes, you can fool anyone with a rigged test. Not saying yours was, I’m just saying that it very easily could’ve been, regardless of statistical reality.

  • Catherine Kali

    I choose organic for the sake of soil health as well as to avoid ingesting pesticides. However, I recently noticed when comparing conventional and organic Red Delicious apples side by side that the conventional apples were consistently more crisp. I have a notion that this is because of the fungicide applied to conventional apples to increase shelf life.