The majority of consumers agree that the taste of food has decreased a lot in recent years. This is probably true, but we have to consider that there is a great subjectivity in there, and the memory can be very misleading. It should be added that the remembrances of childhood taste are often associated with pleasant or unpleasant sensations that affect the memory of the reality. I am not looking for excuses, but it is a reality that increases the impression of quality loss.
I will focus on the elements that influence the taste. I'll mostly talk about fruits and vegetables, which I know better quality factors, and in the end, I add some details concerning animals.
The classification of factors is not randomly chosen, they are put in order of influence on taste.
First factor : the variety
It is called also "vegetal material". This is what will determine the taste potential of food. The taste of food is part of its genetic potential, as well as the majority of its characteristics (size, firmness, color, texture, juiciness, flavor, sugar/acidity balance, skin, etc.). Whatever the culture conditions, a variety only can express what is in its genes, even about taste.
Poor variety will always be poor; put in optimal conditions, it is only less bad. By cons, poorly managed, it can become unpalatable.
A very good variety can only be good, or become great. It is at this difference that other criteria may meddle.
Second factor : the maturity
The state of maturity will enable the variety to express its full taste potential, or not. Each type of fruit or vegetable and each variety have its ideal harvest time, which is when it gets to the point of balance between all the elements that constitute the taste.
One of the most typical cases is the pear. For most varieties of pear, the ideal point of maturity is several days before physiological maturity. Why? Because this is the time when the balance between the texture of the flesh, the development of flavors and sugars is the best. We must therefore pick the fruit at this time and mature it before consumption.
What would happen if the fruit is let more time on the tree? The approach of physiological maturity causes a natural ethylene production by pips, which will disrupt the aromas and reduce its eating quality.
What would happen if we eat the ripe picked fruit, but not matured? The texture of the flesh is too hard, sometimes grainy, with too high acidity, aromas still partially hidden. It will be a tasteless fruit, without interest.
Pick a ripe fruit does not always mean pick it mature, but at the best moment to take advantage of all its qualities.
Third factor: the climate of the year
Operates a plant through photosynthesis, so thanks to the sunlight. A very covered weather during the last phases of the cycle will reduce the taste of the variety.
Similarly, excessive rains will not allow the plant to absorb the nutrients it needs, causing some "dilution" of the organoleptic quality.
A too cold weather, or too hot, strong alternations of heat and cold, hail, is all meteorological phenomenon that disrupt the plant life and do not allow it to feed its fruits properly.
It is obvious that the farmer has little power over these factors, except in some cases. He can install anti-hail nets, or grow under greenhouses, so as to artificially create a climate that suits the culture.
Fourth factor: the soil
The term terroir is a French word used to describe an agricultural production area that is particularly characterized by the criteria of geographical area, terrain, soil, subsoil, microclimate and exposure. With vines, the soil is essential. Why? Because it is a generally non-irrigated or little-irrigated crop, so almost entirely subject to the agricultural and natural climatic conditions of the place where it grows. This is also true for all crops grown under similar conditions (olives, apricots, almonds for example, if they are grown in traditional conditions).
For cons, the importance of terroir greatly reduces with fertilized and/or irrigated crops, since the farmer brings to the plant, "comfort" it does not always naturally find.
There is however some special cases, as is the case of the Golden apple. Deemed tasteless into the 80s, it became good to very good, depending on the production area. This variety is very sensitive to the terroir, and mountain areas can produce a very high quality. Thus, in Europe, the most suitable areas are the Limousin and Savoy in France, and the Aosta Valley and South Tyrol in Italy. Other countries develop their own suitable areas for a high quality level (Somontano area in Spain, Lake of Constance in Germany, some areas of Oregon and Washington states in the United States, etc.).
Fifth factor: the culture conditions
For optimum quality, the farmer must try to equilibrate the culture. That is to say that the relationship between vigor and production must be optimal, the number of leaves per fruit has to be sufficient (the leaf is the supplier of almost all elements whose fruit needs). Excessive vigor weakens the fruit and reduces its quality. Lack of vigor will generally increases the quality of fruit, but also reduces its size, reduces productivity, and reduces the ability of the plant to renew its productive organs. But it also depends on the causes of the lack of vigor. If there is a problem of drought, root asphyxia by water excess or a health problem, the quality may decrease.
The photoperiod also acts on the plant. This is the day length evolution (shortening or lengthening, depending on the season). This is the main landmark of the plant on the season in progress. It is especially observable to annual crops, because perennial crops are naturally following its biological cycle. We must plant the annual crop at the right time so that the plant is in suitable conditions. If not, the crop is generally able to grow, sometimes with problems, but the crop will not have the required quality characteristics.
The most critical point, among cultural techniques, acting on quality, is the nutritional management. The plant needs definite elements at specific times in order to optimize its physiological functioning. All nutritional art of the farmer is to know (and be able) to provide the plant with nutrients it needs, exactly when it needs it, and in a necessary and sufficient quantity, without excess. And that's really hard because there are still many unknowns in plant nutrition, and climatic and agronomic conditions have a major influence on the ability of the plant to feed.
Let’s note that when we talk about plant nutrition, fertilization is included, of course, but also irrigation, that is the water supply of the plant, because water is the main way the plant has to absorb nutrients.
Sixth factor: the method of cultivation
Is there an improvement of taste with organic production? The answer is very clear, and many studies underway or completed show this: no. However, it has the very well established reputation for that. This is true, but the reasons are very different from the method of cultivation. The bottom of the problem is that markets accept a level of aesthetic presentation significantly lower for organic products than for conventional products. This fact allows growing varieties that markets usually refuse. So we go back to the first factor: the genetic basis is the basis of taste.
We can even push the argument further: take the same variety, of any crop, and optimize it in several farming systems. We can compare, for example hydroponic greenhouse (the plant is grown without soil in an inert substrate and receives all of its nutritional requirements through the irrigation system, with very specific assays using an advanced automatism), cultivation in soil in greenhouses, outdoor cultivation in soil in conventional agriculture and outdoor cultivation in soil in organic farming. This is the only objective way to measure the differences, and it is usually this kind of scheme that is used to realize scientific tests. It is obvious that the criteria for comparing the quality will be the same for each system. We will only vary the specific criteria of each production technique.
We will probably get the following results:
1 place: hydroponics
2 place: greenhouse, soil cultivation
3 place: conventional outdoor cultivation
4 place: organic outdoor cultivation
Only for the quality of nutrition. Each system has its strengths and weaknesses. But with regard to nutrition, classification is final.
But beware, these differences will always be weak.
And the idea that the result will be better because the plant is fertilized with manure is totally false. I will explain it with more detail in a future post about plant nutrition.
The factors are very similar. However, it should be added a clear and fundamental difference that distinguishes animals from plants: they move. Most of what we eat in an animal (including fish) is the meat, which is muscle. And an animal needs to move to help the muscle to properly develop and to gaining the consistency that will make it a good meat (I remind you that I am not talking about ethics or animal welfare but fresh food quality). Whatever the rearing way or technique and the care put in the farm management, the meat can achieve optimal quality only if the animal has the possibility of moving itself. And in this context, traditional farming (organic or not), in which animals have a (relative) freedom of movement, always get a significant improvement of quality. One of the best examples is the breeding of the Iberian pig, when it is made in the good way. Animals are kept in huge enclosures (several hectares, sometimes several dozen hectares), located in woods of holm oak and cork oak (called “dehesas”), and most of their food comes from the grass, and especially acorns they must seek themselves. It is only in years of severe drought, when the oaks do not produce acorns in sufficient quantity that the farmer may have to provide them with food supplements.
To eat good products, do we have to buy organic produce or go to the local retailer? People who shop in supermarkets, are they doomed to eat poorly? The change is in progress. For several years, breeders of all kinds and all countries have reinstated parents selected for their taste, in their breeding programs, trying to combine commercial quality (appearance and conservation in particular) with taste. It is a long job, but starting to show results. In the coming years, the change should be tangible. For example, the strawberry from Huelva, so criticized, rightly, for its lack of taste, should change with the arrival of new varieties, still under experimentation, which are crossing of large strawberries with wild strawberries. Similarly tasteless tomatoes in years 1980-2000 are changing with the arrival of RAF types or beef heart type varieties. These new varieties gather many qualities that make them popular products as much by the industry and by consumers. They show the ongoing changes.
Where do we find fresh quality products? To this question, I must answer in a different way than in my publication about food security. I must say that today it is difficult to ensure both food security and a high level of quality. To find fresh quality products, we have to go to the farm, to a neighborhood shop, or to the market. Why? Simply because they live of the customer. If one day you are poorly served, you will protest next time. But if it is repeated, you go from there. These are places that only live from customer satisfaction, forcing them to treat the quality they offer. In contrast supermarkets will offer a different product with a higher guarantee, but it is almost impossible to guess the quality. But the customer goes to the supermarket for other reasons, because the finds almost everything the same place, for convenience and price (in principle). It depends on the priorities of each one.
In a future post, I explain you different meanings of the concept of quality, by the actors of the sector, which will help you to understand that everyone makes quality, but not necessarily with the same idea of the final result.