Science in Society Archive

Food Quality? What's That?

As the global war over genetically modified food intensifies, so has the urgency to assess food quality. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on some promising approaches.

The global war over genetically modified (GM) food has been fought over many fronts. Safety, environmental impacts, and the farmers' right to save and improve seeds on their own farms are the most visible. For ordinary people all over the world, however, the battle line is drawn around the good, wholesome foods that they and their parents have enjoyed for centuries. In protecting their right to good food, consumers in rich countries buying produce from their supermarkets are in complete solidarity with the small, sustainable farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, who grow and consume diverse pickings fresh from their farm: they have no use for GM food.

But the battle doesn't stop there. People are increasingly demanding food produced with minimum input and negative impacts on the environment, and most of all, food that is nutritious and healthy. Processed food and junk foods are notorious for their high salt and sugar content, and has been blamed by many for the epidemic of obesity and obesity-linked diseases worldwide.

As governments campaign to ban junk food adverts in the hope of slimming down the nation, interest in healthy foods has erupted in Europe and the United States.

The pro-GM scientific establishment may still be dismissing the organic 'food fetish', and denying there could be any health benefits from consuming organic foods, but a new sub-discipline of food science has risen to the task of assessing 'food quality'. It is attempting to characterize that elusive 'vitality' and 'wholesomeness' that makes food 'good', possibly in all senses of the word: good to grow, good to look at, good to eat, and good for health and the environment.

As the word 'wholesomeness' implies, that quality belongs to the whole organism, and cannot be found by measuring chemical composition, however detailed, or vitamin and mineral content. It must be done by methods that assess the health of the organism serving as food that somehow confers health benefits to the consumer. And that's where conventional reductionist science breaks down, as it has no concept of the whole, or of vitality.

'Vitality' is the quality of being alive. A vital being is full of life, full of the kind of positive energy that sustains life, the life of the whole. In that sense, wholesomeness and vitality are intimately linked, as our intuition tells us.

There is currently a profusion of methods that claim to assess food quality, ranging from simple tests such as whether animals like it, to more esoteric methods based on the form of crystals obtained from extracts of the plants. While many of the tests may satisfy the criteria of statistical significance applied to 'scientific' tests accepted by the establishment, they lack the conceptual basis that could provide a 'rational' explanation. And so the general tendency is to dismiss those findings.

There is a wide credibility gap between food quality research and the conventional wisdom. But some recent research could begin to bridge that gap.

Do Animals Like Good Food?

Laboratory and farm animals could help assess food quality. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

In an earlier issue of SiS (13/14, 2002) we reported how a young high school student in The Netherlands carried out an experiment to show that mice did prefer non-GM food. This confirmed a farmer's observation that mice in his barn ate up a pile of non-GM maize but left a similar pile of GM maize untouched. There are many other anecdotes on the lengths to which domestic and wild animals will go to avoid eating GM food, and when forced to eat them, fail to thrive (see "Animals avoid GM food, for good reasons", this issue.)

Actually, animal food preference has been adopted by scientists in Austria as one of the ways to assess food quality for some years.

Dr. Alberta Velimirov in the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Biological Agriculture and Applied Ecology in Vienna is a member of an interdisciplinary group of scientists using a combination of methods in an attempt to assess the quality of food produced under a variety of conditions, from industrial to organic farming. The tests consists of (1) sensory evaluation by human subjects, (2) controlled food preference experiments with laboratory animals, (3) rate of decomposition determined by loss of dried matter, and (4) electrochemical measurements of pH, redox potential and electrical conductivity, which together give a 'P-value'.

The results are plotted in a composite graph where the scores of the four variables, sensory evaluation, food preference, dried matter loss and P values are represented along the four axes in the form of a cross (see Fig. 1). Joining up the four values give a diamond-shaped area.

In three comparisons of organically grown carrots, beetroot and Golden delicious apples with their conventionally grown counterparts, both humans and animals tend to prefer the organic produce. Similarly, DM-loss and P-values tend to be higher in the conventional.

Figure 1 Comparing organic and conventionally produced food

Figure 1 Comparing organic and conventionally produced food.

But these are only general trends. Velimirov readily admits that neither people nor animals always prefer organic; even though some biologists believe that animals tend to eat food that's good or healthy for them, that increases their biological 'fitness'. (If that were true, there would have been no alcoholics or drug addicts.) In the same way, DMloss and P values are sometimes higher in the organic than in the conventionally grown produce.

One way of combining the information from the four tests is to calculate the ratio of (sensory evaluation + food preference) to (P value + DMloss), which gives a "quality count". Organic produce consistently scores higher than convention in "quality count". The tests used are purely empirical and appear capable of distinguishing organic from conventional produce, and they do have the virtue of being simple and relatively inexpensive to carry out.

This recent work confirms and extends an earlier comprehensive review of 150 studies, carried out by researchers in the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine in Berlin, Germany, which showed that animals do prefer organic produce.

Why not see if your pets and farm animals prefer organic, and if it is better for their health.

The quest for food quality continues (see "Assessing food quality from its afterglow", this series).

Article first published 31/12/03


  1. Ludwig Boltzmann Institute (
  2. Organic Farming, Food and Human Health, 2001, Soil Association.
  3. Woese K, Lange D, Boess C and Bögl KW. A comparison of organically and conventionally grown foods - results of a review of the relevant literature. J Sci Food Agric 1997, 74, 281-93.

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