April Moment of Science:
Healthy Choices

In celebration of Earth Day, this month’s Moment of Science is all about healthy choices.  When choosing what to eat, we often think about calories, carbohydrates, sugars, salts, and natural versus processed foods.  We know it is healthier to eat an apple for a snack instead of a bag of chips.  But are all apples the same?  Try out this taste test and decide if you think all apples, tomatoes, or strawberries are the same.

First, gather your materials:

  • Your favorite conventionally grown fruit or vegetable from your local grocery store
  • Your favorite organic fruit or vegetable from your local grocery store
  • Your favorite fruit or vegetable from a farmer’s market (or your own backyard) – visit https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets to find a farmers market near you
  • USDAPaper
  • Pen/pencil
  • Plate
  • Bread knife

Then, follow these instructions:

  1. Decide on the fruit or vegetable you want to test, for example, a tomato (we will use tomatoes as our example, but you can use whatever you want).
  2. Visit your local grocery store and buy two tomatoes: one conventionally grown tomato chosen from the regular produce section and one from the organic section.
  3. Visit a farmers market and buy a tomato.
  4. Once you have all your produce at home, create a chart on your paper, labeling each tomato (for example: conventional grocery, organic grocery, farmer’s market), and creating columns for appearance, taste, texture, and your overall rating of the tomato.
  5. Start by examining each tomato and making notes in the appropriate row and column: how would you describe the color, shape, texture, size, etc?
  6. Now it is time for the taste test! Try a piece of each tomato, noting how you would describe the taste in the appropriate row and column on your chart: is it sweet, watery, flavorful?
  7. Try another piece of each tomato, but this time pay attention to the textures: is it firm, mushy, something in-between?
  8. Finally, try one more piece of each tomato, but this time, decide how you would rank each one of them based on your opinion of their appearance, taste, and texture? Which one is your favorite? Your least favorite? Why?

Now that you know which of the three tomatoes (or whichever food you chose to eat) you like the best, why are they different?

Conventionally grown produce found in the regular section of your grocery store often travels far – across the U.S., the average produce travels 1,300 miles before it gets to your store!  In order for the food to make this journey and not go bad, it is often harvested before it is ripe.  Often, farmers will use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to allow them to grow as many crops as they can as quickly as possible.  Farmers will also choose their produce types based on appearances, knowing that most people prefer their tomatoes (for example) to be shaped a certain way with smooth skin and a bright red color.

In order for produce to be labeled as Organic (or use the Organic Certification logo, above), the farmers must encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution in their farming practices, use only natural fertilizers, and use crop rotation or mulch to control weeds.  But organic produce may still travel a long distance before it is delivered to your store.

Although all produce bought from a farmer’s market is not certified organic, you can talk to the farmer about his or her farming techniques (many, but not all, small farmers choose not to go through the expense of certifying their produce as organic, but will still choose to follow the organic guidelines).  Produce from a farmer’s market usually does not have to travel very far because it is from a local farm.  This means the produce is usually harvested only after it ripens naturally, while still on the plant.  In addition, many local farmers choose to grow different varieties of produce than you will normally find in a grocery store: instead of being grown for color, texture, shape, and size, they are usually grown for taste, meaning the farmer’s market tomato may be warty, small, and yellow-orange instead of smooth, large, and bright red.