Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The Search for the Perfect Tomato

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Various heirloom tomato cultivars

Various heirloom tomato cultivars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you were born before 1960, you may remember how tomatoes
used to taste – delicious, juicy, and just ripened on the vine to produce a
gustatory delight.  Back in the Midwest where I was raised, waiting for the tomatoes in late summer was something everyone looked forward to.  But what happened????  The tomatoes in the supermarket are pitiful versions of their beloved ancestors from the past.  Even when you grow your own, the taste just doesn’t make it.  Something is lacking and I wondered why.

I just finished reading a book called Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook. I thought this book would bring me some answers on what happened to this wonderful fruit and it certainly provided those answers and then some.  To make matters worse, check
out this quote from the author of the book.”Perhaps our taste buds are trying to send us a message. Today’s industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent lessthiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s. But the modern tomato does shame its 1960s counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much sodium.” Shameful!!!

The tomato began as a wild species known as Solanum chilense and was found in Chile, Peru, Ecuador and the Galopagos Islands.  It was domesticated by Mayan farmers in southern Mexico and/or northern Central America.  The Aztecs even had a recipe for salsa – hot peppers, salt, and “tomatls”.  The tomato was introduced to Europe during the Columbian Exchange. In Europe it was called “love apple” and “tomate” in colonial United States. Some thought it was poisonous.  In 1833, the Supreme Court declared it a vegetable, but botanically it is a fruit.

Tomatoland  is really about growing tomatoes in Florida, an area not naturally suited for the tomato’s needs and Florida tomatoes comprise about 1/3 of the tomatoes Americans consume.  The book also details the horrors of the workers centered primarily in Immokalee, FL which is quite a contrast to the well-groomed Naples, about an hour away.

Reading the short review will touch on the many problems of the growers and the often deplorable conditions of the workers working in the tomato fields. But my primary goal for this post is what happened to the flavor???  And is it fixable???

The chapter entitled “Matters of Taste” addresses the goal of the current breeders – that is to find a variety that actually tastes like a “real tomato”. Crossbreeding began in the 1800’s by the botanist Alexander Livingston and has continued until this day in order to create the perfect tomato for growers and consumers.

In the last 50 years, unfortunately, breeding favored the growers who desired higher yields, bigger size,  the right shape  and appearance  and  disregarded flavor and nutrition.    Genetic diversity has suffered greatly – the tomato now contains less than 5% of the genetic material of the original gene pool and  the flavor was lost.  Lately, there is more emphasis on the recovery of the right genes to replace this loss and find the right combinations to produce the “perfect tomato”.

John Warner Scott a professor of horticultural science at the U. of Florida Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, southeast of Tampa, FL. has developed over 30 varieties of tomatoes over the last three decades.  No genetic engineering here, he uses just old-fashioned crossbreeding like Livingston in the 19th century.

In the summer of 1988, Scott chose a nicely flavored sweet tomato
called Florida 7907 but it was not acceptable for commercial growers since it
was too spherical.  Scott also chose another  tomato called Florida 8059 that had the right shape.  He crossbred the two in 2002 to produce Florida 8153 which was well accepted by taste panels.  He named this variety Tasti-Lee.

Tomato flavor is very complicated. Most of the flavor is in the aroma which is consists of about 15-20 volatile compounds having the biggest impact. Horticulturists claim that without them, a tomato will not taste like a tomato.  Tasti-Lee had a good balance of sugars, acids, and volatile compounds, a fire-engine red color and very high concentration of lycopene, an antioxidant, currently claimed to have positive health benefits.

The right to market this variety was eventually awarded to Whitworth Farms near Boca Raton, FL who took a chance with Tasti-Lee.  Whole Foods was a customer of Whitworth and in 2010 the tomato appeared in 16 Whole Food stores in Florida and ventured further into Washington DC stores.

Dr. Harry Klee, a fellow professor at the U. of Florida in Gainesville is also searching for the perfect tomato.  Along with traditional breeding, he uses a  team of psychologists, statisticians, food scientists, and molecular biologists as well as taste panels to confer top scores to the best varieties.  Klee has identified 50 genes that affect flavor.

Market researcher and psychophysicist, Howard Moskowitz, has
developed a computer model to track the chemicals most preferred in tomato
samples.  One that consistently stands out is called beta-ionone found in the top-rated varieties.  Eventually he hopes to develop a formula for the best tomato possible, i.e. which genes produce these chemicals most responsible for flavor.

So the quest continues. Dr.  Klee says: “it may take 5-10
years to find the perfect tomato.” Tasti-Lee was just a beginning.

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