Why Doesn't American Produce Taste as Good as Europe's?

Fresh vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, peas, and tomatoes in baskets and a food scale

Iñigo De la Maza / Unsplash

Vox writer interviews food growers, researchers, and cooks to get to the bottom of an old debate - whether or not Nonna's spaghetti sauce really was tastier back home in Italy than here.

Why does food seem to taste better in Europe? Is it because we North Americans are usually on vacation when we’re there and we tend to idealize our culinary experiences? Or are the ingredients actually superior to what we get back home?

Julia Belluz of Vox decided to investigate, after eating a plate of spaghetti al pomodoro that changed her life: “The tomatoes had the perfect ratio of sweetness to acidity, tasting nothing like the watery produce I was used to in North America.” Belluz embarked on a research journey throughout the United States that included food growers, flavor experts, and chefs, and wrote an article called "Why fruits and vegetables taste better in Europe."

Differences in Produce Production

It turns out that there’s nothing different about the soil in North America. We have the ability to grow produce that is just as delicious as what’s grown in Europe. It's just that we choose not to. It all comes down to differences in culture and preference.

In Italy, France, and other parts of Europe, taste reigns supreme. It is the most important factor in growing and selling produce, since that is what customers want. They have higher standards that would not accept a gigantic mealy tomato in the middle of January; rather, they would wait for smaller, juicier, more flavorful tomatoes in the right season.

Growers in North America, on the other hand, have responded to decades of pressure to grow bigger, heavier fruits and vegetables that are uniform in appearance. Customers want their produce all-year-round, even if it’s out of season, and they want to pay minimal price. Picking larger tomatoes, for example, costs the grower less because it takes less time and labor to yield more product.

The Look and Size of Produce

Harry Klee is a tomato grower from Florida who developed a great-tasting, nutrient-rich tomato called the Garden Gem that will never be sold in the United States because it’s considered too small. He told Belluz:

“The bottom line here with the industrial tomatoes is that tomatoes have been bred for yield, production, disease resistance. The growers are not paid for flavor — they are paid for yield. So the breeders have given them this stuff that produces a lot of fruit but that doesn’t have any flavor.”

Most supermarket tomatoes sold in North America share a genetic mutation that makes them all round, smooth, and deep scarlet red when ripe. The only problem is that this widely-embraced mutation deactivates a gene that produces the sugars and aromas that are essential for a flavorful tomato.

“When researchers ‘turned on’ the deactivated gene, the fruit had 20 percent more sugar and 20 to 30 percent more carotenoids when ripe – yet its non-uniform color and greenish pallor suggest that mainstream breeders will not be following suit. So we’re stuck with beautiful tomatoes that taste like a mere hint of their former selves.” (TreeHugger)

It sounds like we could take a lesson from Europe’s approach to produce. As more people express willingness to buy abnormally shaped fruits and vegetables, hopefully that will extend to smaller-than-usual produce with richer flavor as well, and supermarkets will respond. In the meantime, it’s possible to seek out European-tasting produce from small-scale growers at farmers’ markets and CSA shares.