by Marion Nestle
Aug 10 2011

Q and A: Hydroponics

Q.  I would love to hear what you think about hydroponic food. My instincts tell me that organic soil is full of life and traces of nutrients and elements we don’t fully understand and here we have another frankenfood that is scientifically derived.

A.  Frankenfood is too strong but I’m basically with you on this one.  I don’t get hydroponics.  Obviously scientists have figured out enough about plant nutrient requirements to keep them alive in water and nutrient broth but what’s the point?  Soil works really well and is bound to contain substances we don’t even know about.  These may even influence taste.

Chefs say even the best of hydroponic vegetables, according to a recent New York Times article, are not considered serious replacements for field-grown lettuces because they can’t reproduce the flavor.

My suspicion?  People who like hydroponics don’t like getting their hands dirty (but isn’t that half the fun?).


  • I heartily agree with the chefs. Hydroponically grown vegetables are tasteless. All too often, their texture is nasty as well. Plus, in addition to whatever nutrients the growers supply, these foods can contain only what other nutrients they are able to synthesize from the sun, air and water. Human beings, like all mammals, need foods grown in healthy, living soil.

  • We wholeheartedly agree. Farmer Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden recently wrote a post about this topic, explaining why we grow in soil versus hydroponically:, which you might find interesting.

  • Stev-o

    I would say that soil definitely plays a significant role in taste. Think of why chefs will choose produce from a particular region or java aficionados prefer beans from a particular region. I would think the cost of hydroponics outweigh the benefits at least while we still have top soil. It just doesn’t make sense under normal circumstances.

  • Tyrone

    Hydroponics have a wonderful flirting mild flavor, unlike the crass overpowering aftertaste of common veggies innoculated with dirt and creepy crawlers. On the palate, not unlike the difference between a good dry French white wine and Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill.

    Hydroponics are also affordable, a big difference from veggies laboriously manhandled out of the dirt.

  • Paul Charles Leddy
  • Coming for a Chef background and a long history of growing in soil outdoors led me to explore Hydroponics. Soil is great, hydroponics is great! The arugula I can grow in my hydro system is spicy, crunchy and beautifully clean. The arugula I grow in soil is spicy, crunchy and pretty clean. I enjoy them both and I enjoy the process that goes into growing them both. Recently we opened a Hydroponic retail store (Purely Hydroponic) in Avon Ohio which has given me the opportunity to really explore what possibilities hydroponic growing can offer. Yesterday we just harvested a vertical growing piece for micro-greens. They are all bursting with flavor and grew under T5 lighting. We used a small amount of a bat guano solution in it. Other items we have growing at this time are tomatoes, cucumbers, ghost peppers, arugula, bibb, romain, mustard, swiss chard, banana trees, elephant ears, marigold, empress of india, sunflowers and a few lilac clones. We are focusing on maintain a journal of all of our grows and what works better under different circumstances. We utilize coco fiber as a media, rockwool and hydroton. I do believe that hydroponics offers a very valid alternative to soil grown produce on some levels. I feel that hydroponic gardening is also an important alternative to become familiar with as land space becomes less and less. Having the ability and knowledge to grow hydroponically in an environment that possibly will not allow soil growth year round is something we are very focused on.

  • I am glad to see this discussion. My mind told me this should be a good thing but when I eat them, they ALWAYS taste like cardboard. Always a dissapointment. I did not understand until I read the above.

    I just ate a raw green pepper from my garden… so crisp….

  • Heather

    I have really enjoyed the hydroponic greens and basil I have purchased from local farms in Ithaca. They have a soft delicate texture and plenty of flavor. In the winter it is often the only available local green…

  • Kim M.

    The main advantage of growing hydroponics is that they’re grown vertically, thereby increasing yield per square foot.

  • I’m not a fan of hydroponics. I don’t think it’s all that sustainable to source most of your nutrients (in fertilizer form) from somewhere far away and I don’t think chemistry is a subtle enough replacement for living biology. I also like dirt gardening for aesthetic reasons, but I admit I am lucky enough to live in the prairies where there’s lots of space. (Mind, I don’t think hydroponics should be an excuse not to conserve good agricultural land.)

  • Liv

    From the perspective of a cook, hydroponic products are disappointingly tasteless. This is just my experience with them…

  • Hylton

    There’s a hydroponic grower at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. Sorry, but their greens, herbs and tomatoes are absolutely delicious.

    Perhaps it’s like all food, there is food grown in good soil and food grown in poor soil. Perhaps there’s a good way and a poor way to produce food hydroponically.

    If the vertical farming concept were ever to get off the ground – plentiful, hyper-local, urban, pesticide-free, waste-contained oxygen-generating food and job creation – hydroponic would probably be a part of such a setup. There are even techniques to grow food without soil or hydroponics, but on a fabric substrate.

    Viedo here

    Perhaps it’s all pie in the sky, but the advantages Paul Charles Leddy (above) linked to on the Wikipedia page are worth thinking about.

  • Chad

    We prefer the veggies from our csa but hydrponics bridges the gaps – especially with greens and herbs here in the Northland (MN). Hydroponics helps us not have to ship everthing from the coast in winter. Sometimes I think the produce travels more than we do….

  • Eddie

    Hydroponics have a glaring similarity to CAFOs: mechanized control of life that permits mass production of food, probably nutritionally inferior to their field alternatives.

    Every different soil bed produces veggies with different nutritient ratios. Similarly, with hydroponics, humans create conditions that invariably result in nutritient ratios different than plants grown in soil. Flavor in plants comes from volatile compounds and molecules that react with each other during growth, after harvest, while cooking, after biting etc. Their absence is probably what’s responsible for the tastelss flavor everyone’s reporting. At the moment, they appear to be vitamin and mineral supplements that look more like their natural counterparts.

  • Eddie

    Clarification of last line in my comment above: “At the moment, [hydroponic vegetables] appear to be vitamin and mineral supplements that look more like their natural counterparts.”

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  • Kayla

    I see many of the people commenting here prefer gardens and soil, so perhaps they live in wide open spaces, own houses, and have hospitable climates for growing food; however for city dwellers like myself, home built hydroponics systems offer an opportunity for the yard-less and the rooftop-less to grow lettuce, herbs, and other vegetables from their window. Being able to go straight to your window and harvest what you need for your dinner is one of the best feelings ever, and for many, not possible without hydroponics (not to mention the many other benefits.) If you’re interested in joining the club is an online community devoted to improving these window systems and providing how-tos.

  • Ed

    It’s nice to read all the comments about hydroponics. I believe they are just making guesses. They are short of knowledge about the physiology of plants and how taste and flavor are affected by how we provide the nutrients necessary for growth and development. In a well-managed hydroponic system, all the nutrients are provided to the plants via the nutrient solution. The taste and flavor are directly affected by the nutrients the plants absorb during their growth. If you have your own hydroponic garden and is managed well, you can actually taste the difference from those vegetables grown in soils. This is a fact not just a guess.

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  • While I agree that in the main, organic or soil grown food tastes better, there is definitely a place for hydroponically grown food. With the Earth’s population hitting six billion, the only way we’re going to feed everyone is by squeezing the greatest amount of production we can from the limited space available, which is where hydroponics comes into it’s own. Yes we might have to sacrifice a little bit of taste, but I for one don’t mind if it means fewer people going hungry.

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