Barber’s Brix and the pursuit of perfect produce

Organically produced foods offer us more antioxidants which, it can be argued, are of key importance for our health


The debate about organically produced food versus chemically produced food never goes away. The two sides seem irreconcilably opposed and the debate rages on.

The dispute is not surprising. At the core of the disagreement between those who support chemically induced food production and those who argue for natural, traditional methods, lies the whole conflict between industrialisation and artisanship, between science and culture, between modernity and tradition, between patent rights and common property.

The scientific community views the organic crowd as a bunch of hippies who would lead us back to Malthusian-style famines. The organic crowd see the scientists as a conspiracy of patent trolls and corporate greed gone mad.

One of the key problems in the issue is the fact that neither side can agree on the results of the science.

The newest research just published, a meta-analysis of 343 earlier studies led by Prof Carlo Leifert at Newcastle University in the north of England, has found that organically produced fruits, vegetables and grains have substantially higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally produced foods.

That result is at odds with a much-criticised analysis from Stanford University published two years ago, though the Stanford report agreed with a 2009 review from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which concluded that there were no nutritional differences between conventional and organic foods.

But that study, in turn, was contradicted by a US study last year which found that organic milk was better for people because it offered a better balance of fatty acids.

However, the findings of the Newcastle research, and its discovery of the increased presence of antioxidants in organic foods, have significant implications on the question of our health and wellbeing.

“Across the important antioxidant compounds in fruits and vegetables, organic fruits and vegetables deliver between 20 and 40 per cent higher antioxidant activity,” Charles Benbrook, of Washington State University, told America’s NPR.

It appears that what happens when you don’t use chemical pesticides and insecticides is that the plants produce more antioxidants as a defence against pests and diseases.

Antioxidants are important to us as they protect our cells from the effects of ageing, and have been linked to a lower risk of cancer and other diseases.

In short, it seems to be better if we let the plants put up their own fight, rather than weigh in alongside them with a bunch of sprays.

This is one aspect to the organic versus chemical debate, which is rather brilliantly explored in Dan Barber’s thrilling new book, The Third Plate.

Barber writes: “When insecticides and fungicides are used, they usurp the plant’s natural defences, which means the plant produces fewer phytonutrients.”

Barber argues that phytonutrients – amino acids, esters and flavinoids – are key to the flavour of food you are eating.

Important nutrients Barber is one of America’s foremost chefs, and he runs Blue Hill Restaurant in Manhattan

and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant in the centre of an organic farm at the Stone Barns Centre for Food and Agriculture in upstate New York.

The opening chapter of the book, “Soil”, recounts his conversion to organic agriculture as he struggles to carve out his identity as a chef and restaurateur.

Barber recounts the day his principal farmer, Jack Algiere, walks into the restaurant kitchen with a bunch of Mokum carrots and places them with a swagger on a chopping board.

“ ‘Sixteen-point-nine, pal,’ he finally said. ‘Sixteen-point-freakin’-nine.’

“ ‘Sixteen-point-nine?’ I repeated, not understanding.

“ ‘Brix,” Jack said, removing a small handheld refractometer from his pocket as evidence.”

Jack’s 16.9 Brix reading “means that the carrots were 16.9 per cent sugar – and bursting with minerals”.

As Barber points out, the Brix “also indicates the presence of healthy oils and amino acids, proteins, and – this is key – minerals, those ingredients that . . . were so critical for flavour.”

Book about flavour

The Third Plate

In doing so, he is at all times searching for the ideal environment that causes the creation of the best-tasting carrot, the most vigorous wheat seed, the sweetest tomato.

Jack, his swaggering gardener, sums it up like this: “The development of flavour, and the health of the plant, are the same freakin’ thing. You don’t get one without the other.”

So perhaps there are two conclusions we can draw from the Newcastle study: organically produced foods offer us more antioxidants, which are of key importance for our health.

And they also offer greater flavour, because they contain more phytonutrients.

If you want to enjoy a “Sixteen-point-freakin’-nine” carrot, there appears to be one way to go. And there is no better time than right now, when our farmers’ markets have bulging aubergines, fresh potatoes, slender courgettes, fat broad beans, ripe soft fruits and handsome tresses of carrots.

Just tell the stall holders that you want some “sixteen-point-freakin’-nine” fruit and vegetables.

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber is published by Penguin

John McKenna is the author of Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way. See

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