Taste Erasers

How chemicals are eroding one of life’s simple pleasures.

There’s nothing better than biting into a juicy piece of sun-ripened fruit. Whether a honeyed peach or an earthy raspberry, the experience can be almost profound. But now, according to experts, that experience is diminishing. The cause? Synthetic chemicals.

Pesticides and herbicides have long been a health and environmental concern, but new research is helping us understand what they do to the flavors of fruit, as well.

strawberries

​A recent study found that application of pesticides during growth decreased strawberries’ flavor. Photo by pepperberryfarm / Flickr.

A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in February used strawberries to investigate whether chemicals could diminish fruit flavors. The study, led by Jinling Diao, a researcher at China Agricultural University, found that the subject fruit’s appearance of health and succulence was illusory, and that pesticides applied during their growth, like boscalid and difenoconazole, decreased their flavor. The chemicals lowered the fruit’s natural sugar content, turning the majority of the sugar into acid, making it bland and watery.

Researchers have considered these potential effects as far back as the 1950s. The May 1961 edition of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry featured a study known as the Northwest Regional Project, which began in July 1954. In it, a handful of area researchers explored how herbicide use was affecting test plants, especially their flavors. After the application of 28 herbicides, a tasting panel noted that 16 of the chemicals somehow altered fruit flavors.

In 2018, a blind taste test of wines, led by molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini, found that participants mainly preferred organic selections over non-organic, the latter of which contained up to 4,686 parts per billion of various pesticides. The non-organic wines were often described as bitter and pungent.

While they hint at the problem, such studies have not fully examined how the active ingredients in these sprays, such as copper sulfate, DDT, and endosulfan are causing the complex flavors of fruits to disappear.

Natural strawberries get their scrumptious flavor from sugar content that slowly increases as they ripen. This process, instigated by a plant growth hormone called auxin, lowers acidity. The fruit’s glucose and fructose combine and eventually break down to create the fruit’s iconic aroma, transforming it into a soft, sweet, and fragrant treat.

But strawberries are one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world. When pesticides and herbicides are applied, they destroy parts of the natural molecular process, making it harder for the strawberries to develop fully and naturally, confusing the process. Researchers in the 2023 study discovered that boscalid was the most menacing, because it attacks cells that specifically produce sugar and aroma.

Of course, there are trade-offs. While there are concerns about chemicals and taste, there are reasons many farmers opt to use pesticides. They can significantly increase yields and control common diseases and pests, like citrus canker and aphids. This can lead to more products for consumers and higher profits for growers.

Despite the benefits, however, a growing number of producers are finding value in organic products.

In East Aurora, New York, Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm is just one of many farms around the United States that focus on organic strawberry growing. The family-run business has been in operation for over 40 years and grows numerous strawberry varieties, including Galletta, Yambu, Cabot, and Dickens.

Producing organic strawberries is tough work that requires the family to be active almost year-round. Because the Thorpe’s don’t use herbicides, they have to be extremely diligent about weed control. “If you miss the window of killing the weeds in the threading stage, you are going to have to spend a lot of money on labor to keep up with the weeding,” Gayle Thorpe, the farm’s owner, says. The farm only grows disease-resistant varieties to encourage a strong crop. They also apply a layer of organic, pelleted, composted chicken manure once a crop is finished and mowed for the year. This enriches the soil and keeps pesky deer away.

Thorpe believes the extra work is worth it. “I’m very chemically sensitive, and many of the chemicals used on conventional strawberries are systemic, meaning they cannot be washed off but become part of every cell of the berry,” she says.

“I do believe our organic berries taste sweeter and better,” Thorpe adds. “I don’t buy conventional strawberries to compare the taste difference, but I do know a lot of our customers assure us our berries taste better.”

As Thorpe notes, soil health could be another key to healthy and flavorful fruits. Heavily applied chemicals can eventually wear down critical soil organisms, like rhizobia, a soil bacteria that adjusts nitrogen and helps form root nodules. They can also damage important soil nutrients like potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. These nutrients not only help produce strong crops, but they also boost taste by slowing down the growing process, increasing sweetness, and producing bigger fruits. Even the slightest modifications could lead to an abnormal pH balance, which results in less sugar production, more acidity, and the destruction of faint ambrosial notes.

And not just when it comes to strawberries. Frey Vineyards, in Redwood Valley, California, for example, grows an assortment of grapes, including chardonnay, merlot, syrah, and carignan, solely with organic and biodynamic practices. “We don’t spray chemical pesticides or fertilizers,” Frey’s vineyard manager, Derek Dahlen, explains. “Instead, we build up the health of the soil by using cover crops and composts, and allow animals to graze in the vineyards. This builds up biodiversity, which makes the vines more robust.”

“By not using chemical fertilizers, you get a more natural profile of the varietal,” Dahlen says. “The characteristics of the varietal come through more strongly from a healthy vine that doesn’t have to deal with the shock of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides,” he says. “The vines are getting their nutrient needs met through healthy living soils instead of through sulfate fertilizer, which can lend a generic flavor.” Chemicals might not kill grape vines but they can irritate them if they come into contact, stunting the roots and diminishing or even killing the soil ecosystem.

Paul Frey, the vineyard’s main winemaker, says that organic growing ultimately pays off, especially when it comes to taste. He notes organic selections have more special compounds, called phytochemicals, which contain and enhance intricate flavors. “For me there is a difference,” he says, “and sometimes pretty pronounced. You just get more complex, variable, and fascinating flavors in organic wines.”

While there is still much to learn about the seemingly unfriendly relationship between fruit flavor and synthetic chemicals, recent findings could help growers move to more organic alternatives. After all, a world without sweet strawberries and rich wines would be bleak indeed.

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