It’s strawberry season here in the Northwest and we just came in from the garden here at the realfoodtraveler.com offices loaded with bright, red strawberries bursting with sweet strawberry goodness. These Oregon berries are a huge contrast to the giant strawberries from California we recently had a friend’s dinner party. Those factory farmed strawberries, what I call Frankenberries, are emblematic of what’s wrong with food in America today.
I grew up in Southern California in Orange County where we were surrounded by fragrant orchards of citrus and endless fields of strawberries. My grandmother would often take us to berry stands alongside those strawberry fields where the farmers, then mostly Japanese immigrants, would sell their berries fresh from the fields. Fast forward 50 years and you won’t find strawberry fields in Orange County any more. Land values have risen so sharply that it’s too expensive to grow crops on what is arguably some of the best irrigated farmland in the world. Those fields and orchards have been replaced with condos and fast food joints.
Of course, they still grow strawberries in California as evidenced by the mountains of big, bright fruit you’ll find in nearly every large grocery store in the U.S. In fact, California supplies 80% of the nation’s strawberries. But those strawberries don’t look or taste anything like the strawberries of my California youth—or the strawberries you can get here in the Northwest.
The strawberry industry in California—and it is an industry in every sense of the word—has been taken over by corporations that run factory farms. Though a precise mixture of cloning, growing techniques, and chemicals, these California strawberry farms produce strawberries that yield ten times more strawberries, per acre, than strawberry farms in Michigan; twenty times more than farms in the state of New York. California strawberries are very productive and very profitable. My problem with this equation? California strawberries don’t taste good.
Through painstaking breeding and cloning, California strawberry growers have created plants that produce fruit that’s unnaturally huge and firm, which makes it faster (and thus more profitable) to pick, easier to ship and gives the fruit a long shelf life. I’ve had a half-dozen of those giant California strawberries from my friend’s dinner party in my refrigerator for five days and they look perfect. Oregon berries, with higher concentrations of sugar and water, would be moldy in two or three days. The California strawberry industry has created the perfect Frankenfruit—something that looks somewhat like the original, but is all about profit, not flavor.
Over-sized California strawberries are white inside (as opposed to red in Oregon berries), and their flesh is relatively dry and firm. In fact, California berries often crunch when you bite into them. Apples should crunch, but not strawberries.
And the Winner Is…
When compared side-by-side in taste and nutritional quality tests, Oregon strawberries beat California strawberries by a large margin. Dr. Michael Qian, of Oregon State University’s Food Science and Technology Department, conducted a study comparing six varieties of Oregon strawberries with six varieties of California strawberries. The result? Oregon berries won every time. Part of this has to do with the higher sugar content in Oregon strawberries. The average fructose, glucose and sucrose content in the Oregon strawberries in Qian’s study were 2.66 gm, 2.33 gm and 0.77gm, while California berries had 1.93 gm, 1.69 gm and 1.02 respectively.
Oregon strawberries not only taste better, research shows they’re better for you. A study conducted by University of Illinois researcher Dr. Mary Ann Lila suggested that the cooler climate of the Northwest stresses the berries and causes the Oregon plants to produce protective phytochemicals that are good for people and help the plant ward off disease.
Plenty of studies have shown the importance of antioxidants and the health benefits of anthocyanins, the chemical that gives strawberries their rich color. Once again Oregon strawberries at 30.25gm/100 gm of fruit, showed much higher anthocyanin levels—more than twice that of strawberries from California at 12.28gm/100 gm of fruit.
While I’m happy that Oregon strawberries are more healthful than those big, commercial California berries, for me it’s really the taste that makes the difference. By creating giant California berries, some the size of tangerines, and creating fruit that’s hard with little juice or sugar, these factory farms have killed the flavor and the sensory experience of smashing a ripe, sweet, juicy strawberry on the roof of your mouth.
Oregon berries will certainly never feed the country. They’re not a great crop for shipping. They’re too delicate and too juicy. Their shelf life is short. They’re Zen berries—best in the moment. In fact, the very best when you pick them warm from the field and eat them immediately.
My grief is that 80% of the country that’s consuming those California berries will never really know what a real strawberry tastes like. Kids who grow up eating California strawberries will think dry, hard, and tasteless is what strawberries are all about.
And that’s my problem with Frankenfoods, foods created not for taste or pleasure for people, but to maximize efficiency, convenience and, of course, profit for corporations: THEY DON’T TASTE GOOD AND THEY’RE OFTEN NOT GOOD FOR YOU.
There’s a current movement, albeit small when compared to all the factory farming that goes on in America, to eat local, to eat more organic, to eat seasonally and to know where your food comes from. If more of us demand foods that are real; foods that haven’t been hybridized to the point that they have neither flavor nor nutrition, all of us will eat much, much better. — Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor