How Scientists Are Bringing Flavor Back to Tomatoes

published Jan 30, 2017
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(Image credit: Jeff Roffman)

If you think tomatoes are flavorless and not what they used to be, then you’re not wrong: The taste quota of the fruit, which originated in Central and South America, has been on a steady decline. But all hope — er, taste — is not lost! An international team of researchers from the United States, China, Spain, and Israel have been studying different breeds of tomatoes for a decade and have a solution.

What Factors Contribute to a Tomato’s Flavor?

“This study came out of the general complaint that modern tomato varieties — the kind that you find in supermarkets — have lost that typical tomato taste,” Antonio Granell, co-author of the report, told The Guardian. “We decided to look at the basis for this loss of flavor in modern commercial varieties; you can still find that flavor in traditional varieties that are grown on a small scale locally.”

The agricultural researchers ran taste tests on 160 types of tomatoes; sequenced the genome of 398 modern, heirloom, and wild tomatoes; and ran “chemical and biochemical analysis of all the sugars, organic acids, and volatile compounds.” The team, who published their findings in the journal Science, identified 13 volatile compounds that contribute to a tomato’s flavor.

(Image credit: Brie Passano)

Why Do Tomatoes Taste Worse Now?

The United States is the second largest tomato producer in the world — China is the largest — growing roughly 32 billion pounds of the fruit a year. In 2014, the average American consumed 31.4 pounds of tomatoes. And according to data from the Agriculture Department, the tomato is the second most popular of all fruits and vegetables.

Why do tomatoes taste worse now? Harry Klee, a professor of horticulture at the University of Florida and co-author of the study, says tomato breeders prioritized performance-based traits over flavor when growing tomatoes, and the traditional flavor was lost somewhere in the tail-end of the 20th century.

“For decades, tomato breeders have selected traits related to performance — yield, disease resistance, how well tomatoes ship, how well they last on a shelf,” Klee told Vox. “Those are the things they can measure and do measure, and they’ve done very well at it. But they never select for flavor. And if you don’t select for flavor, you are selecting against it.”

The Search for a Tastier Tomato

According to Klee, a process called “molecular breeding” can breed tastier tomatoes and expedite the process by half in comparison to traditional breeding — molecular breeding would take a year-and-a-half to incorporate one gene, while traditional breeding would take three years. But since at least five genes are required to elevate the taste profile of tomatoes, Klee says we are “about three years of molecular breeding” away from truly delicious tomatoes.

(Image credit: Brie Passano)

Would You Buy More Expensive Tomatoes?

There is, however, a limitation. Consumers prefer sweet-tasting tomatoes and there is a “negative correlation between fruit weight and sugar content“: larger tomatoes are less sweet. Producing smaller, sweeter tomatoes is less profitable for farmers, as there is an increased labor cost. So until consumers are ready to shell out more money for smaller tomatoes, says Klee, not much can be done about sweet tomatoes.

It’s not all the consumer’s fault or the farmer’s, though. Bloomberg notes that when faced with 99-cents-per-pound, mass-produced, aesthetically pleasing large red tomatoes, it’s hard to justify shelling out four dollars a pound for heirloom tomatoes. And Klee says people have been sacrificing sweetness for larger tomatoes for a long time now.

“The selection for big fruit and against sugar is dramatic in the modern varieties,” Klee told the Smithsonian magazine. “But it goes way back to pre-Columbian days when the Native Americans were already selecting for bigger fruit with lower sugar content.”