What does a pesticide taste like?

I honestly can’t believe I just typed that title. But here we are. The notorious Gilles-Eric Seralini published a paper recently called “The Taste of Pesticides in Wines.” As a part of the study, people were asked to choose a preference between organic and conventional wines. Okay, fine. But then the participants were given glasses of water, some of which were spiked with pesticides at doses purportedly found in bottles of wine. This is bizarre on so many levels.

For years, Seralini has claimed that ultra low levels of pesticides can be damaging, and he has co-authored numerous papers purporting to show this damage. Many (most?) of those papers have been scrutinized or dismissed by many in the scientific community for various reasons, but in the present study Seralini cites much of his previous research to claim that:

“chronic consumption of these contaminating levels … may cause or exacerbate liver steatosis and kidney damage as well as mammary tumours.”


“Most of the 11 pesticides detected have been proposed or classified as endocrine or nervous disruptors, or even as carcinogens.”


“…toxicity below regulatory thresholds is considerably amplified by the common formulants of glyphosate-based herbicides…”

Seralini apparently believes that these pesticides at these levels are dangerous. So it it baffling to me, that if he truly believes that these low doses are harmful, that he would knowingly ask 71 people to consume these pesticides, especially since the doses used in this study were “several thousand times above the admissible level in tap water (0.1 ppb).” 

Ethical questions surrounding this research aside, I looked at the methods and results out of morbid curiosity about what a pesticide tasting study would reveal. I work with pesticides a lot. Over the years, I can honestly say I’ve never even accidentally tasted any of them. I’ve certainly smelled many of them but I’ve never had the desire to taste them. Okay, maybe I’ve secretly had the desire to taste Harness herbicide, which for some odd reason both looks and smells like grape kool-aid to me. But even then I’ve never actually followed through and tasted it.

After reading this paper twice, though, I still have no idea what they could taste, or how accurate they were at tasting it, or anything else really. The inconsistencies and weird data reporting and incomprehensible metrics and unreported observations made it impossible to even critique the paper in any meaningful way. Some examples: 71 professionals were recruited for the study, but the results state that “[o]ut of 195 tests, 147 were judged by 36 professionals as demonstrating a marked difference between the wines of the pair.” So 36 could apparently taste differences in the wines (one with and one without pesticides), but what about the other 35? They couldn’t? That’s half of the participants. And half is exactly what one would expect to occur by chance.

One of the figures in the study shows data for “First detection of pesticides by taste in water, at least once in black; not detected in grey.” I have literally no idea what that means, and there’s no explanation in the methods about “first detection” to help explain it. Figure 2 also doesn’t say whether it includes all 71 participants, or just the 36 participants that guessed correctly could purportedly taste the pesticides.

I also found it strange that the authors didn’t provide data on which pesticides were detectable. Tasters were exposed to 11 different pesticides. I would be very interested to know if a vast majority of successful detection was due to 2 or 3 pesticides that were added at relatively high doses and were more easily tasted, or if the positive detection was evenly distributed among the pesticides. There’s also no statistics in the paper to be found (or even sample sizes), so it is impossible to know whether the results are due to random variability.

Finally, the participants were asked to describe the taste of the pesticides they were drinking. I assume based on the results above that there were at least 36 tasters who claimed they could taste the pesticides, so there were presumably a large number of descriptions of these flavors. But in Table 2 of the article, only 2 to 4 word descriptions are provided for each pesticide, and no indication was given as to how those words were chosen. Were they the most common? (I kind of doubt it since “papilla blockade” made the list more than once — this is not a term wine tasters use regularly, is it?) Or were they the most unique terms? Or were they the words that the authors thought would make for a good paper? We really have no way to know.  (I personally would love to see the descriptions the participants gave for the pure mineral water controls…)

Regardless of how they decided on which words to put in this paper, I can assure you I will not be tasting fenhexamid to determine whether it actually tastes like artificial strawberry. And I hope that you won’t either.