Commercial farmers have spent the past several decades perfecting the art of growing tomatoes that are most likely to catch the eye of supermarket shoppers. The result: uniform, bright red tomatoes that taste pretty lousy.
A new study published in Science entitled “How Tomatoes Lost Their Taste” details how decades of breeding tomatoes for optimal aesthetics on the supermarket shelf has made them less palatable in the mouth.
The researchers blame the tomato-farming practice of picking the fruits while they are still uniformly light green, so that they ripen to bright red perfection by the time they’ve completed their journey to the supermarket, as well as cross-breeding.
Wild varieties of tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes are more prone to be uneven in color and “have dark green shoulders, and that makes it harder to determine the right time to harvest,” according to Ann Powell, a plant scientist at the University of California, Davis. But they have more carotenoids and often have better taste.
Growers have thus selected and bred tomatoes that are uniformly light green for the past several decades.
Researchers posit that the bright red tomatoes taste less appealing than they look because they have been bred to contain less natural sugar due to inactivity in a chloroplast-producing gene sequence called SIGLK2. By reintroducing that gene to the tomatoes, the researchers increased the amount of glucose and fructose (natural sugars) in ripe fruits by up to 40 percent. They did not taste the tomatoes because of regulations, but believe they would be much sweeter to the taste.
However, don’t panic if you aren’t a biochemist but still want better tasting tomatoes. The researchers suggest that if farmers simply would allow the tomatoes to ripen on the vine instead of while they’re being shipped, the tomatoes would be more flavorful. So plant some of your own, and let them hang until they’re nice and red.