Industry discusses flavor in produce
Nela Park, GE Lighting’s headquarters in East Cleveland, Ohio, where the Great Lakes Ag Tech summit took place
Photo: Patrick Williams

Industry discusses flavor in produce

A panel at the Great Lakes Ag Tech Summit discussed what flavor means to consumers and the industry.

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September 27, 2019

Can a consumer tell the difference between the flavors of two strawberries — one slightly sweeter than the other? If so, will they pay more?

These are the types of questions that were brought up at the inaugural Great Lakes Ag Tech Summit, which Hort Americas/Urban Ag News and Current hosted at Nela Park, General Electric Lighting’s headquarters in East Cleveland, Ohio, on Monday, Sept. 23.

The event was rounded out with a panel discussion with industry members and academics: John Jackson, CEO of Sustainable Indoor Growing Systems (SIGS); Ariana Torres, agricultural economist and assistant professor at Purdue University; Austin Webb, CEO of Fifth Season; Paul Brentlinger, president of CropKing; and Chieri Kubota, professor of controlled environment agriculture at Ohio State University. Chris Higgins, general manager of Hort Americas, moderated the panel and took audience questions.

The panel talked about topics ranging from different countries’ and cultures’ approaches to CEA, worker salaries and challenges presented by climate change. During the discussion, flavor came up, which sparked some of the most engaged debates amongst the panelists, Higgins and some audience members.  

“Does [flavor] depend on the market that you're looking at, and does a Walmart shopper care about flavor?” Higgins asked Kubota. “Are they more concerned with shelf life and aesthetics — strawberry-specific?”

Strawberries that have a high amount of flavor have a short shelf life, Kubota said. Low-income and upper-middle-class consumer segments may place an emphasis on shelf life and flavor, but for the richer segment, price may be less of an obstacle to make a purchase, Kubota said.

Conversation among the audience and panelists followed, touching on questions such as if better flavor demands a higher price point, as well as if flavor differences between similar products are often real or perceived.

Kubota cited Brix — sugar content — as an example of how flavor can be measured. She said she was surprised that Florida strawberry growers generally do not measure their product’s Brix but are more focused on how the product looks and how it will be shipped.

“One of the things I want to see in the future is the grocery stores having some capacity to show Brix, for example, or the Brix and acid ratio,” Kubota said.

Higgins commented that growers are paid based on yield, not flavor. “If we look at how farms have operated for the past 25, 30 years, growing up in a farming family, all of my uncles, who are now getting prepared to retire, feel flavor went out of the market in the 1980s,” he said.

But not everyone can always taste the difference between flavors of separate products, Brentlinger said. “I would guess that probably 80% of the people who are eating and buying strawberries from this experience to the next couldn't tell you the taste difference between those two strawberries,” he said. “In the middle of my day, I popped this bright-red juicy sweetness into my mouth and then a month later I did the same thing. They were both really good. Certainly, one of them was better than the other. But it's perception.”

To attract customers who can differentiate between flavors, Brentlinger said small growers need to offer better flavor than large growers because they need to charge more, which growing a better product allows them to do.

He likened the subject to craft beer. While many people may enjoy a craft beer over a Budweiser, Budweiser doesn’t have trouble selling its product. “It's all about what your goal as a grower is,” he said. “Are you going to be the craft strawberry, or do you want to sell at all Walmarts?"

Jackson stressed that price point matters. “You walk by and you see a tomato and they’re 99 cents, and you see a tomato at $3.99, it’s like, 'Man, I don't really care what it tastes like,’” he said.