It’s Not Your Imagination

Wondering why you can’t re-create the wonderful flavor of your mother’s chicken recipe? It isn’t your fault—it’s the chicken’s.

Most meats and vegetables and some fruits have significantly less flavor than they did decades ago. Chicken has become especially bland—it has almost no flavor now.

Agricultural companies and large-scale farms strive to produce as much food as possible as quickly and inexpensively as possible—even if that means sacrificing flavor. That has resulted in big savings for consumers—the typical five-pound supermarket chicken now costs around $7, for example, less than one-quarter of what it would have cost in 1948 after adjusting for inflation—but it also explains why today’s food lacks flavor. Modern chickens are…

Fed inexpensive but bland feed. Bland feed—typically a blend of seeds—produces bland meat.

Butchered very young. Meat from young animals is less flavorful than meat from mature ones.

Bred to be plump, not tasty. Today’s chickens don’t even look like the chickens of the past—their breasts are much larger.

The story is similar with other animals and crops. Pigs are 25% younger when slaughtered than they were in 1948, yet also 25% larger…beef cows are 50% younger but produce 60% more meat…hens lay twice as many eggs. All of the food from these animals is bland. Meanwhile, one acre of American farmland produces three times as much rice…four times as much corn…two-and-a-half times as much wheat…and five-and-a-half times as many strawberries.

Not As Healthy

Eating bland food isn’t just less enjoyable, it’s also less healthful. There’s a reason that nutritious meat, vegetables and fruits taste so good to us—our bodies are sending us the message that these foods contain beneficial vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Today’s foods don’t taste as good largely because they contain fewer of these things.

Example: A study published in Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004 found that an assortment of 43 garden crops—39 vegetables, strawberries and three melons—contained 20% less vitamin A and 15% less vitamin C than the same crops grown in the 1950s.

The declining flavor and nutritional content of meats, vegetables and fruits are likely part of the reason why an increasing percentage of Americans are overweight. We must eat more of these foods to get the same nutritional
content…we often cover these bland foods in high-fat and/or high-calorie sauces to give them flavor…and we resort to eating unhealthful processed foods that feature artificial flavors to find the flavor that’s now missing from “real foods” such as meats, vegetables and fruits. In short, all our food is becoming more like a seasoned potato chip, inherently bland but loaded with irresistible flavorings—the “Dorito effect.”

Finding Food with Flavor

It is still possible to find healthful, flavorful foods. Here’s how…

Buy meat from mature animals that ate natural diets. Seek out grass-fed beef from cattle that lived to at least 22 months of age…pork, ham and bacon from pasture-raised pigs at least six to seven months old…and chicken from pasture-raised birds at least nine but preferably 12 to 18 months old. (If you live in an area where it is too cold to pasture-raise chickens during the winter, confirm that the birds are fed “green feed” during these months.)

The typical supermarket will not offer these meats, but some supermarkets now do. And a quality butcher shop, farmer’s market, artisan farm or specialty poultry purveyor on the Internet is likely to (and can give you the ages of the animals).

Tip: The meat described above costs more than the meat typically sold in ­supermarkets. But I have found that when meat is more flavorful, smaller portions are satisfying. Or try buying relatively inexpensive braising cuts such as beef chuck, flank, brisket or round…and pork butt or shoulder roast. These have lots of flavor and are wonderful for stews, soups and roasts. Sample savings: $15 per pound if you buy a chuck roast instead of a tenderloin roast.

Eat seafood. Wild-caught seafood still tastes as good as it ever did. Farm-raised seafood might not be quite as flavorful as wild-caught fish, but the flavor dilution tends to be much less dramatic than it is with farm-raised meats. Farm-raised fish tend to consume diets closer to what they would have eaten in the wild.

Exception: Farm-raised tilapia often is fed corn. The result is an extremely bland fish—it’s the chicken breast of the sea.

Buy produce at farmer’s markets—or grow it yourself. Farmers who sell at farmer’s markets often prioritize flavor over crop yields. But sample before buying—just because something is sold at a farmer’s market does not guarantee that it will be flavorful.

Tip: Buy green, leafy vegetables that have relatively dark leaves. These have more flavor than lighter-leafed varieties.

Or grow your own fruits and vegetables. Prioritize garden crops that have lots of flavor. Ask other gardeners for tips on the most flavorful varieties, or search the Internet.

Example: A University of Florida program that is developing more flavorful tomato cultivars will send seed packets to anyone who donates $10.

Also, heirloom varieties often feature smaller yields but pack incredible flavor.

If there are no farmer’s markets in your area year-round, sample the produce available at high-end markets such as Whole Foods. In some cases, this will be more flavorful than the produce available at mainstream supermarkets. However, do not assume that food will be more flavorful simply because it costs more and is labeled “organic.”

When you do purchase produce in supermarkets, favor relatively uncommon varieties. Less attention typically has been paid to increasing the yields of obscure crops than very popular ones, so the flavor might not have been degraded to the same degree. Example: Arugula typically has much more flavor than iceberg lettuce…scallions have more flavor than the typical onion.

Limit your consumption of processed foods. Regularly eating foods that feature lab-created flavors seems to reprogram the brain to crave these flavors and the often less nutritious foods to which they are added.

Related Articles