By Rose Eveleth
Posting in Science
Scientists are using chemistry and genetics to figure out just what makes an heirloom or home grown tomato so much tastier than their store bought brethren.
Summertime means nice, ripe, red tomatoes. On hamburgers, in salads, by themselves. They're simply delicious.
If you're snooty like most people, you bemoan the quality of store bought tomatoes. They're bland, they've got a weird texture, they're kind of waxy. Compared with home grown tomatoes, it's like they're totally different fruits. But why?
One researcher, Harry Klee at the University of Florida, wanted to to know exactly what made one tomato a treat, and one a chore. Turns out that how good a tomato is depends on a lot of things. Sugars, acids, volatile compounds the tomato lets off into the air. So Klee set up a taste test. But, not just any taste test, of course, because he's a scientist.
Klee got together 278 tomato samples from 152 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. He analyzed their chemical diversity alongside their tastiness. What he found was that heirlooms were super diverse, chemically. But there were twelve compounds that traced to flavor intensity, and twelve that traced to sweetness.
How good a tomato tastes also has a lot to do with how it smells. "There are volatile chemicals unrelated to sugars that make things taste sweeter," Klee said in the press release.
Fo a while, conventional wisdom was that heirloom tomatoes tasted better because they were more genetically diverse than the modified supermarket variety. But that's not actually true, says Scientific American. "There's probably no more than 10 mutant genes that create the diversity of heirlooms you see," geneticist Steven Tanksley told the magazine. Tanksley (like Klee) is a scientist though, so to debunk the diversity myth he did his own study about the genetics of tomatoes. As with most crops, tomatoes have undergone hundreds (if not thousands) of years of selection by humans for specific traits, Scientific American writes.
Tanksley concludes from his analyses that, in their effort to make bigger, tastier and faster-growing fruit, our ancestors ultimately exploited just 30 mutations out of the tomato’s 35,000 genes. Most of these genes have only small effects on tomato size and shape, but last May in Nature Genetics Tanksley and his colleagues reported that they found a gene they dubbed fasciated that bumps up fruit size by 50 percent.
Knowing all this, scientists hope to be able to improve store bought tomatoes. "Consumers care deeply about tomatoes," Klee said in the press release. "Their lack of flavor is a major focus of consumer dissatisfaction with modern agriculture. One could do worse than to be known as the person who helped fix flavor."
As a vegetarian who consumes absurd amounts of tomato, I support Klee 100 percent. Bring on the pico de gallo!
Image: Softeis/Wikimedia Commons
May 24, 2012
A good tomato should not crunch when you eat it. It should be red, juicy and have taste and smell. If it is hard enough to drop and break a toe it is not a good tomato.
Home grown chicken eggs from chickens that run around the yard: THEY TASTE LIKE STEAKS. GOOD STEAKS. In other words, they are so much flavorful and healthy than storebought, it blows your mind. COST - Four chickens will cost you about $150 over three years. They will give you about 750-900 eggs in a year (average about 67 DOZEN cartons of eggs). Now, to tomatoes. If you have an average ability to taste, with no physical hindrances to such, take a chance and buy one of those Topsy Turvy tomato growers. cheap. Grow your tomatoes. Then when you pick them (they should fall off the vine with just a soft pull), go to the store and buy your best, most expensive tomatoes. Separate them. Cut up each source of tomato. Invite a few friends over first, of course. Eat a raw tomato from each source (you should have a cards faced down identifying each tomato batch. I guarantee that not one "tester" would pick the store bought tomatoes, no matter HOW "organic" they were, or expensive. A tomato picked that YOU grew, and eaten the same day you picked it, tastes like a FRUIT! hmmmm.... I wonder why ;-) People, learn to be self sufficient. It's time. Nothing more to be said.
I stopped buying tomatoes from Walmart years ago because they weren't sweet and the texture was way off. I knew they were shipped green and gassed with chemicals and contribute this to the taste/texture. On the rare occasions that I do get fresh tomatoes, I go into a tomato eating frenzy......
Commercially grown tomatoes are picked green, refigerated and then gassed (commonly while they are in transit inside a tractor trailer) using a specific gas that causes them to appear ripe by the time they reach the grocery store. By doing this the tomatoes are firm and tolerate travel and handling without bruising or rupturing. Bananas are done the same way before they leave the warehouse destined for the store. The gas causes the color to change and the texture to soften within just a few days. They are not the same as vine ripened tomatoes or probably bananas either. I have likely never tasted a naturally ripened banana because virtually all are imported by ship in their green state, which takes quite some time to accomplish. I would expect this force ripening to have much more to do with the taste, smell and texture than genetics.
In my experience, the flavor of a tomato has almost nothing to do with genetics and almost everything to do with time of harvest and vine ripening. If you grow the tomato yourself and wait until it's ripe to harvest it (unlike commercial tomatoes, which are all likely harvested green and often grown in hot houses), it will have that flavor we all associate with the summer tomatoes of our youth. I'll bet I could take a commercial strain of tomato and grow it in my garden, and it would still taste better than an heirloom tomato harvested green, sprayed with ethylene and trucked all the way across the country!
@omb00900 -- I TOTALLY AGREE !!!! There just is nothing like eating a home grown, freshly picked tomato plucked directly off of the vine. A corn and tomato feast has got to be my favorite summertime longing. ANY store tomato - including the 'on-the-vine' varieties - cannot begin to come close to the full taste of a lovingly tended garden.