The taste of fruits and vegetables

When we give green veggies to kids, the reaction is usually something like this.

Ok, nothing strange there — after all, some of that is a question of age. But it’s becoming more and more common for adults to have that exact same reaction.

We wanted to figure out why the taste of certain fruits and vegetables are no longer pleasing. Or better — why is the taste not what it was before?

To figure that out, let’s get back to basics. Why do we eat?

The answer is simple. Eating is vital for maintaining our organism. It brings us the necessary nutrients that keep our bodies functioning properly. That is to say, calories for energy and the body’s basic functions (breathing, digestion…) as well as elements that help in the growth and maintenance of our bodies, for example in developing a strong immune system.

It’s the famous old saying…

“Eat your vegetables if you want to grow big and strong.”

Eating is life. But it’s also a pleasure. And that pleasure is too often lacking in the fruits and vegetables that we eat.

Fruits and Vegetables: The Basis of Our Food Supply

To have a positive impact on our health, our diet should be varied. Even if some claim to survive by eating only hotdogs or hamburgers with fries, that is not, unfortunately, ideal in terms of nutrition.

For the body to function like a well-oiled machine, we need to find a wide variety of nutrients in our food.

We need macronutrients in large quantities. That means a mishmash of things with unappealing names. Carbohydrates (starches, sugars and dietary fiber), lipids, proteins. We also need micronutrients, in smaller quantities. There’s a slew of them: vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids.

All of these nutrients are found in our meals. Where, exactly? In large part, in fruits and vegetables. We also find them in starchy foods, dairy products, other plant products, oleaginous products, fats and sugars (watch out to not have too many of those last two).

But let’s get back to fruits and vegetables, or what we consider as the base of the food pyramid. According to the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, we need to eat at least 400g of these each day. That’s where we got the famous saying of “Eat 5 fruits and vegetables per day”. Ok, fine so far. But is eating really just a question of physical needs?

Eating: Obligation or Pleasure?

We eat because it’s a necessity, sure, but it can also be a pleasure. Which is good — if we need to eat 400 g of fruits and vegetables every day, all the better if we enjoy doing it. And it’s true that 54% of French people say that they like fruits, and 46% like vegetables. Ok, so 50%…it’s not great, but it’s not bad, either.

But why is that other half of the population unconvinced? It’s quite simple. They don’t really like the taste. Only 59% of them say they’re satisfied with the taste of the fruits and vegetables that they buy. And more than 60% of consumers say that the fruits and vegetables that they purchase are “neither ripe nor sweet”. As such, we have to eat, every day, products that we don’t really like, and we have to eat a lot of them…not necessarily the best situation.

When we ask about the 3 most important criteria for a meal, the answer is clear. Taste is first, with 53% of people having it in their top 3. Next up was quality at 52% and pleasure at 42%. Other stats are also clear, with taste being a major factor for 75% of French people when they go shopping for food.

So eating isn’t just a physical need. It is also a pleasure, and taste seems to be central to our thought-process while shopping. But then how to explain the fact that taste has nonetheless disappeared from the plate?

There’s something that doesn’t fit. Is the problem in our taste buds, or is it a problem to be found in the production process? To better understand, we dug into what is hiding behind our perception of taste. What is it? Does a strawberry have the same taste for someone living in Paris as for someone living on the other side of the world?

What’s Hiding Behind Taste

To answer these questions, we went back to the heart of taste. Taste is one of our five senses, made possible due to the papillae in our mouth.

Adults have between 5,000 and 8,000 papillae, most of them located on the tongue. There are different categories: fungiform, circumvallate, foliate (all housing taste buds). Each papilla consists of 50–100 cells that transmit the information they receive to a neuron.

Our taste buds, housed on different zones of the tongue, allow us to identify 4 primary flavors. The tip of the tongue senses sugar, the sides salt and acid, and the back of the tongue identifies bitter tastes. And of course, there is also the famed 5th flavor, umami, the savory taste often associated with Japanese cuisine.

We should note as well that perception of taste changes with age. So we may hate the taste of green vegetables as a child (oftentimes the case), but grow to love it as an adult. Hey, there’s still hope for spinach! Maybe…

But that which we commonly refer to as taste is really referring to what scientists call flavor. And that is a combination of our sense of taste together with our sense of smell and even our trigeminal nerve (trige-whaaaaat? Don’t worry, we’ll explain below).

Smell thus also plays an important role. Food has aromas, made up of odor molecules (sometimes involving over 100 molecules per aroma) that are freed in our mouths as we chew. By passing through the nasal cavities to the back of our palate, these molecules are detected by our olfactory nerves, letting us distinguish between a wide variety of aromas.

Our trigeminal nerve then contributes to our thermal, mechanical and chemical sense. It tells us if our food is spicy, astringent, boiling or refreshing.

Taste is the combination of all of these factors. It is a complex process in which individual perception plays an important role, as many aspects come back to a subjective, personal judgement. But when 50% of the population believes that fruits and vegetables now have less flavor than they did before, that becomes a commonality, not just the opinion of a few consumers with high standards.

So either there’s an epidemic going around that has affected the taste buds of half of the population, or there’s a deeper problem, coming from how we produce our food.

Are We Really Looking for Taste?

To get to the bottom of the story, we need to go back over 50 years. In 1960, the amount of household spending dedicated to food was 34.6%. It was our largest expense, and fruits and vegetables made up 18% of the total.

After that, household revenues began to increase, and our spending habits changed. The portion dedicated to food has dropped to 20.4%, with fruits and vegetables dropping to 15.5% of the total.

At the same time, other products have seen their importance in our shopping carts increase: pre-cooked meals, sugars (sweets, chocolate, jellies…) and non-alcoholic beverages.

Between 1960 and 2010, consumers changed their expectations. One of the goals was always spending less on fruits and vegetables. The agricultural industry responded, and the trade-offs began.

Price: Enemy of Taste?

Price pressures had important repercussions on how we produce food. We must keep in mind two factors that significantly influenced these changes.

On the one hand, our population exploded. We went from roughly 40 million inhabitants in France in 1950 to 66 million in 2016. Producers thus needed to find ways to lower their production costs while increasing yields.

On the other hand, cities kept growing, taking land away from agriculture. Agricultural land keeps moving further and further from consumers. More than 26 square meters of agricultural land disappears every second in France. That’s why our fruits and vegetables are, on average, produced 1500 km away from the final consumer. And now 75% of the strawberries that we eat in France come from either Morocco or Spain.

Agriculture had to find solutions for these issues. It moved further away, it modernized, it made different choices regarding fruits and vegetables. They were no longer chosen for their taste, but for a multitude of other criteria: for their lifespan (to survive the transportation process), for their appearance (to have everything perfectly shiny and round on the supermarket shelves), their resistance to disease and temperature change (tiny warriors!) and for their yields (making it easier to produce large quantities).

The result was that taste was left behind. Fruits and vegetables are harvested prior to maturity. And because fruits are still alive after being harvested, they dip into their reserve of sugars during the transportation process, to continue growing and producing pigments and aromas. Harvesting prior to maturity thus means less sugar staying in the fruit. In the case of the strawberry, for example, the taste of the fruit is directly related to its ratio of sugar to acidity. The more acid, the less pleasing is the taste. And the earlier it’s harvested, the more acid there will be.

The majority of fruits and vegetables that we eat today go through a true trial-by-combat before getting to our plates. They’re pretty in the supermarket, but they never had the chance to develop explosive flavor — and that’s what leads to the consumer dissatisfaction regarding taste. Is it possible to recover that lost flavor? What solutions may exist?

Toward Organic?

Organic farming seems to solve several problems. Recent studies demonstrate the benefits of organic farming on the environment, our health, and our society. In terms of taste, organic is generally better, as long as it takes into account one need: growing locally.

There is nonetheless a halo effect that is rather important. That is to say, we have cognitive biases that impact our perception of people and things. And that’s definitely in play when we see an “organic” sticker on our food.

As an example, take the famous Coca Cola/Pepsi test.

The large majority of people say that they prefer Coca Cola, and that they can clearly distinguish its taste from that of Pepsi. But when we conduct blind taste tests, there are very few people who are able to tell the difference between the two. And even more impressive, when asked which one they prefer, 75% prefer Pepsi. This is why some people refer to “neuromarketing,” and the halo effect is part of that.

Also, more than 25% of organic products come from giant farms in central Europe, Poland and Germany, eventually being transported over hundreds of kilometers. Even if there are many smaller organic operations, not all organic products were grown nearby.

In general, organic appears to be a more sustainable approach than traditional agriculture. Yet up until now, there have been no studies that definitively show the benefits of organic products in terms of nutritional value and taste. With the exception of phosphorus, the amount of vitamins, minerals and proteins are not significantly different in organic vs. traditional products.

So organic is a more responsible way of farming, and it has benefits for our health and the environment. It also can, in many cases, provide better taste and quality. Organic is a great option over traditional products, with the caveat that it’s produced locally. Now the question becomes whether it is possible to bring together a method of responsible, local production centered on taste?

Could Urban Agriculture Be the Solution?

Producing locally is the necessary condition for exceptional taste.

There is no single, ideal solution, but there are multiple possibilities that can avoid transportation while also choosing fruit and vegetable varieties that are more fragile, but better-tasting. Fruits and vegetables can then rediscover their previous path, skipping over today’s steps of refrigeration, transportation, preservatives…

That’s why urban agriculture seems to be an optimal solution. Produce where people live, and have fruits and vegetables that are eaten on the same day that they are harvested.

It’s a movement that is attracting more and more fans. More than 800 million people across the world are involved in urban and suburban agriculture. According to the FAO, it will be possible to produce up to 50 kg of fruits and vegetables per square meter, per year around urban areas. Contrary to what you may have heard, urban agriculture is not necessarily unproductive.

In Paris, this phenomenon keeps growing. Today there are more than 73 hectares destined to be used for various urban agriculture products in the Paris region. Recently, the mayor has also announced that she wants to increase that area by 33 hectares by 2020.

In this newly expanding world, Agricool is one of the solutions that people support. The first Cooltainer in the Parc de Bercy pulled in all kinds of curious people, and in 2017 we’ll be installing over 75 cooltainers in Paris and its environs. Our goal is to produce right down the road from the consumer, providing them with quality fruits and vegetables, accessible to all. One day, we won’t have to search our brains for the last time we had really good fruits and vegetables, just like those that came out of our grandparents’ gardens.

Taste is making a comeback, and we’re eager to hear what you think.