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