WFAEats
12:00 am
Wed April 25, 2012

Mutant Strawberries! They’re Big, But How Do They Taste?

Note to readers: that is a real human-sized spoon, not a Barbie spoon.
Credit Erin Sutton

Portions and foods in general are getting bigger and bigger, but this is ridiculous. My fiance brought home some freak, mutant strawberries last week. I had to share the photo because I didn’t know you could actually buy strawberries this big. I thought they were the subjects of “whoa, look at that thing” ribbons at the state fair or perhaps B- horror movies (Attack of the Killer Strawberries?) Is this the result of some kind of nuclear radiation or genetically modified seeds grown with steroid fertilizer? I decided to investigate.

According to their website and a representative I contacted, they do use some pesticides:

…we use practices and methods to minimize the need for pesticides whenever possible. Our team works closely with scientists at the University of California to determine the best time for applications of pesticides and insecticides and they are used ONLY when necessary to protect the survival of plants.

They add that they also offer organic berries, as well. As for genetic engineering:

California Giant does not use GMO’s. We rely on traditional breeding methods to develop and enhance our berries’ flavor, quality, size and color.

If GMOs are not involved, the size must be attributed to some selective breeding. I’m no farmer or geneticist of course, but it seems like it would be difficult to breed for BOTH size and flavor. Based on the strawberries I had, it seems like size won, they weren’t particularly flavorful or juicy…

The giant berries growing in their giant habitat.
Credit Photo from California Giant Berry Farms Facebook page.

I tried to find something to back this up by doing a little light reading. In Breeding for Fruit Quality, Matthew A. Jenks and Penelope Bebeli point out that:

The demands for high-quality traits in newly bred cultivars [cultivated plant varieties] are greatly influenced by large producing companies, retailers, and traders, sometimes at the expense of consumer preferences.

and…

…industrialization of agriculture influences breeding aims. For decades, traits such as yield, harvest time, firmness, and shelf life have been dominating the efforts of breeders instead of flavor.

When you’re breeding for sometimes 100 parameters, they write, something’s got to give and unfortunately that can be flavor. (An example from another part of the plant world – rose curators have bred roses to be more disease-resistant, but in doing so, many of them have lost their fragrance.) So let’s think about this for a moment. All a producer really wants is for you to pick up their product at the grocery store. Consumers are going to gravitate more to an apple that’s big, colorful, bruise-less and perfect. So that’s what they breed for in their crop; attractiveness. Heck, orange growers used to dye oranges a little more orange until the FDA banned fruit dyes. All of this may be changing our expectations. Fruit is getting so big, we’re starting to forget what ‘normal’ looks like. Hopefully we don’t forget what it tastes like!

Credit Photo from California Giant Berry Farms Facebook page.

So is this an argument for buying organic produce? I’ll leave that up to you. It might at least be an argument for buying smaller. The company who produced these enormous strawberries has farms all over the US and even in Mexico. They’re supplying fruit all over the country. Yield is their absolute priority. So is beating out a competitor to the produce aisle. Grocery chains are only going to buy what they know they can sell.

Maybe bigger isn’t necessarily better. Personally I like strawberries that I don’t have to eat like an apple (though a friend joked that you would only need three to make a pie!) Not to mention, foods should be marketed for their taste, not their size. That’s like lite beer commercials promoting how cold their beer is rather than how tasty it is (at least it’s factual). When possible, I like to buy seasonal produce from a local farm like Springs Farm in Fort Mill.

Credit Photo from California Giant Berry Farms Facebook page.