If you’ve ever tried a hydroponic tomato, you may have felt that the flavour was different than a usual soil-grown variant. Certainly some of the tomatoes I’ve grow hydroponically tasted, well…a little bland. But is this actually true? And if so, why? And what can you do to improve the flavour?
Hydroponic tomatoes can taste very different from soil-grown tomatoes in some situations. This is because the soil, and the nutrients available in it, can impact the flavour of the tomatoes. Additionally, soil-grown tomatoes are often exposed to more stress, which can lead to more complex flavour profiles for the plant product.
There is a lot to learn about how flavour can be induced in tomatoes and other plant products that are grown hydroponically. In fact, we will look at the world of flavour in hydroponic plants in detail and how some of these flavours can even be changed.
Examining the flavour of hydroponic tomatoes
There is actually a discrepancy between the typical hydroponic and soil-grown tomato tastes. The answer lies in the environment in which hydroponic tomatoes are grown.
This is because hydroponic tomatoes are generally grown in the best possible conditions. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they will taste better. While the perfect amount of warmth, nutrients and humidity helps tomatoes to grow to much larger sizes, it can also mean that there is far less flavour in each bite. With tomatoes, size isn’t everything.
Tomato farmers often have a fascinating saying that speaks to the flavour profile of these plant products, which is: ‘Treat them bad, and they’ll taste better.’
The reason behind this is that the more the tomato is placed under stress, the more types of flavour-enhancing substances it will create. This means you end up with a smaller tomato, but one that can produce deeper flavours.
This is why soil-grown tomatoes can sometimes taste better than hydroponic equivalents. In the soil, they will be dealing with a lot more uncertainty when it comes to things like water, availability of nutrients, and access to sunlight, all of which can actually benefit their flavour.
Additionally, the soil-type tomatoes are grown in can impact their flavour profile through a measure known as ‘terroir’.
Here is a look at what terroir means, especially through the lens of grape growth:
However, scientists and hydroponic growers are learning every day to come up with new ways in which adding controlled nutrients and substances can impact the flavour of tomatoes and other hydroponic produce. In future, the taste of such produce is expected to improve, but I think we still have some time to go until that knowledge is widespread.
How flavours differ between hydroponic and soil-grown products
The taste and flavour of different plant products can vary based on subjective opinions, but this is still measurable for the most part by studying different compounds that influence flavour. In fact, how hydroponic products such as tomatoes can differ from their soil-grown counterparts in terms of flavour profile is a hotly debated and researched topic today.
The table below shows some of the ways that hydroponic and soil-grown plants can differ in terms of yield and quality:
|Risk Of Disease
Hydroponic tomatoes aren’t ihernelty flavourless. However, the ‘perfect’ growing environment which hydroponics offers can indeed negatively impact the flavour profile (for all the reasons mentioned above).
Here is a brief look at how different flavours can be affected by either hydroponic and soil-based growing.
Scientists often measure a plant’s sweetness through its roots or leaves. The measurement is done through a sap analysis of the plant, which helps to assess what solids are dissolved in the plant sap. This is because it can include dissolved sugars, such as fructose.
If a plant is grown in soil, the pH will impact its sweetness – alkaline (high pH) soil can make the plant sweeter. Hydroponic growers can mimic this effect by altering the pH of their nutrient-solution to impact their plant product’s sweetness. If you’re tomatoes aren’t that sweet, then this could be one reason why.
Sour or bitter flavours can be a little more complicated to improve on with hydroponics. This is because the sour taste comes from a class of compounds known as phytonutrients which can be tricky to replicate in hydroponics.
Crucially, these compounds help to improve the plant’s immunity and protect it from diseases. Calcium, which is common within most agricultural soils, can impact the availability of these compounds, which can result a more sour flavour (which admittedly can be appealing to some).
If your tomatoes are too sour or bitter, it could because you are using too much calcium in your nutrient solution.
Capsaicin is the compound that induces the ‘spicy’ flavour profile.Interestingly, spiciness is a flavour that evolved in plants as a defence against insects and to protect the plant from mould. In general, the more the plant is under stress the more capsaicin it produces.
In a natural setting plants are regularly stressed out by over-watering, drought, pests and diseases etc. These stressors can have a beneficial impact on a fruit or vegetables flavour profile. Particularly its spiciness. To acehvie the same effect, hydroponic growers will need to use stress-inducing techniques to ensure that the plant can maintain the level of spiciness they are looking for.
How can stress impact a hydroponic tomato’s flavor profile?
As we discussed earlier, several factors can impact the taste and flavour profile of your hydroponic tomatoes. Stress, in particular, is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to affecting how fruits and veggies taste.
In addition to capsaicin production, stress has been shown to affect multiple aspects of tomato growth in hydroponics systems. For example, stress can influence things like plant morphology, chlorophyll content, and even acidity levels, all of which can change flavour.
In addition to affecting the flavour of hydroponic tomatoes, stress can also influence their texture. This is because stress has been shown to impact things like firmness as well as the sugar content.
Overall, it’s important to be aware of how stress can impact hydroponic tomatoes so that you can take the necessary steps to create a delicious fruits and veggies that can be enjoyed by all.
Overall, we still have to learn much about how the flavour of hydroponic produce can differ from their soil-grown equiilents. Scientists are continually working on new ways to optimise hydroponic growth conditions to increase the flavour of plant products, and we can expect this research to progress over time.
My advice right now is to be curious and experiment. That’s one of the things I love about hydroponics. Have some fun with it, take notes, and try things out until you hit what you’re looking for.