Unearthing the Flavors of our Foods

  Farm Fresh Spinach 

Farm Fresh Spinach 

While I could get into a whole post on natural and artificial flavors, I will leave that for another time.  Today I want to talk about actual natural flavors.  By that I mean what makes one granny smith, carrot, or tomato tastier than a similar counterpart grown on a different farm?  Yep, we are comparing oranges to oranges!

To answer this question, we must dig deeper.  We must look underneath the fruits and vegetables, and around their roots.  

You guessed it - dirt

Dirt gets a bad rap.  We hear the word dirty and our mind fills vulgar thoughts.  I want to introduce a new side of dirt to you, and will also be referring to it with a more positive name, soil.  Soil is surprisingly complex - in fact, we still don’t know that much about it.  It is made up of billions upon trillions of micro-organisms, similarly to ourselves, that create a biologically diverse ecosystem.  This ecosystem is made up of bacteria, fungi, viruses, bugs, worms, and slugs.  Soil is alive.  So alive that it breathes just like you or me.  I like to think of it as the Earth’s skin, as our skin is also a living organ of our body.  There are so many microbes in healthy soils, that one teaspoon can conservatively contain over a billion living organisms.  This might sound gross, but 1) without them we wouldn’t be alive and 2) our skin also has billions of microorganisms inside and out that help keep us healthy human beings. So think of them as protective warriors against disease.  

How does this affect the taste?


Well, most of the food we eat today is grown on large, mono-cultured farms.  That means, acre upon acre of fields are growing the same crop year after year (with some potential variance depending on the farmer).  These types of industrial agriculture farming systems are able to feed many people, but also have significant drawbacks.  If we were to take a microscope and examine the soil of these mono-cultured crops, we would see that the soil is nearly dead.  The reason being, is that the soil is being supplemented with three basic macronutrients to help crops grow quickly -  Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (N-P-K).  This overly-simplified approach to growing food ignores the rich bio-diversity and micronutients that live within healthy soils.   When the soil's ecosystem is out of balance, so is it’s health.  It can become sick and not perform well, just like us when our ecosystem is out of balance and we catch a cold. 

In order to achieve truly rich flavors, as critically acclaimed NYC Chef Dan Barber states in his book The Third Plate, “Vegetables raised on a diet of N-P-K are tough, leathery and fibrous, and they also lack taste”.  Farmers he interviewed stated “Artificial manures lead inevitability to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals, and finally to artificial men and women.  Healthy soils brings vigorous plants, stronger and smarter people, cultural empowerment, and the wealth of a nation.  We cannot have good food - healthy, sustainable, or delicious- without soil filled with life”.  

It’s easy to notice the vast flavor profile differences between a conventionally grown, over-fertilized tomato, and a tomato picked off of the vine in your backyard. 

Up for the Challenge?

I challenge you to buy a food that’s been shipped across the world and compare it with one grown locally and organically using sustainable farming practices - you will taste the difference!  Post in the comments to tell me your thoughts! 

My professional advice:

The way to the healthiest, most sustainable, and best tasting food is to connect with the growers first hand.  Visit your local farmer’s market.  They will tell you the story behind the food, and provide you with seasonal items specific to your region.  (To find your local farmer's market, go to this website).  I also recommend organic foods whenever possible.  If you’re on a budget check out the EWG dirty dozen foods to buy organic guide.  Lastly, don’t feel overwhelmed with making changes overnight.  As any dietitian will tell you, sustainable change happens gradually.  Try visiting the farmer’s market once a month, buy a few more organic vegetables at the grocery store each trip (especially foods not regionally available), and have fun!  Food is meant to be enjoyed and celebrated!

Good people doing great things

I have two good friends, Marilyn and Chris, that own and operate a wonderful non-profit known as The Hummingbird Project.  Their mission is to work with farmers in  developing countries to educate and help return life to their over fertilized, dead soils.  With backgrounds in microbiology and education, they have farmers bring soil samples from all over India to have it examined under a microscope.  Most of their farmers who are dependent on chemical fertilizers are in shock to see that their soil is dead.  Find out more on their website