New Castle News

Mitchel Olszak

July 2, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Research reveals ugly truth about tomatoes

NEW CASTLE — The best thing about summer isn’t the heat or humidity.

It’s the tomatoes.

Every year, I look forward to the day I can begin harvesting my own crop. It means I can enjoy real tomatoes, not those picked-green, artificially ripened monstrosities stores foist upon us.

There’s no fair comparison between what I grow and what I can buy in a store. Real, vine-ripened red tomatoes are light years ahead when it comes to flavor. Everybody knows that.

Well, it turns out that even my garden-grown tomatoes may fall short of the flavor mark.

In a report published recently in the journal Science, a group of scientists wrote about how they wanted to know more about the bland taste of tomatoes. After detailed genetic research, they discovered the cause wasn’t just the way modern agriculture treats tomatoes. They also learned that color counts.

According to the report, about 70 years ago tomato breeders came across a variety with a distinct visual advantage: It ripened to a nice and consistent red all throughout. This made it very appealing to consumers, as well as manufacturers of ketchup, tomato sauce and other products.

This genetic variation was so desirable that it eventually was bred into virtually all types of tomatoes that are grown commercially and in gardens. Everywhere the researchers checked, there was the gene.

Unfortunately, they discovered that the same gene responsible for nice red tomatoes also affects flavor — negatively.

Through cross breeding between modern tomatoes and weeds, they were able to switch the genes back to their earlier versions. They produced tomatoes that turned a dark green before becoming an uneven red.

And among other things, these retro tomatoes had a sugar content 20 percent higher than their modern counterparts.

So it turns out my garden-grown tomatoes are pale, but pretty, imitations of the real thing. They may taste better than store-bought tomatoes, but they’re still short of the mark.

Of course, I’m not completely surprised by this revelation. Over the years, I’ve raised assorted varieties of tomatoes, including older types known as heirlooms. These non-hybrid versions are irregularly shaped and colored, not exactly easy on the eyes. But the taste is fantastic.

Unfortunately, heirlooms tend to have certain disadvantages beyond appearance. They are sometimes more susceptible to blight, and their thin skins mean they will split and rot more readily than tomatoes bred to withstand certain adversities.

Regardless, the researchers involved in this study have no real expectations that their discovery will lead to major changes in the way tomatoes are raised or consumed. Altering the genes to improve flavor will lead to ugly tomatoes. And the evidence suggests that when it comes to making a choice, consumers and producers will opt for food that looks good over alternatives that taste good.

But if you are among those adventurous souls who can eat a tomato regardless of appearance, there is hope. Check out farmers markets this summer and you may find growers who offer heirlooms for sale. They may not be attractive — or cheap — but they will be delicious.

Or you can grow your own, although that may involve starting them from seed and nurturing them with care.

Then again, maybe you can ask New Castle News gardening columnist Gary Church to do all the hard work for you. I’m sure he’ll be happy to help.


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Mitchel Olszak
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