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In Search of a Tastier Tomato

Hot & Cool Food Trends

Tomatoes taste great in the summer—those grown in our backyards and purchased at farmers markets, in season. But those regular supermarket tomatoes that are sold year-round…they look pretty, all nice and bright red, but the taste leaves much to be desired.

Over the years, tomato breeders have been successful in developing tomatoes that are durable, good-looking, and available throughout the year. But, for ever more discriminating consumers, the taste is just too bland and watery.

But take heart, foodies, agribusinesses are investing millions of dollars in efforts to boost the flavor of the everyday tomato.

As reported by Ian Berry, writing for WSJ.com, these ag companies are currently holding focus groups to try to zero in on the traits that give a tomato its zest, and they’re using new technologies to speed up the breeding process.

Among the major challenges is identifying which genes control a tomato’s flavor. "I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," says Harry Klee, a plant geneticist and tomato specialist at the University of Florida, quoted in Berry’s story. But, Dr. Klee adds, "we're not there yet."

Priorities are changing, however. In recent years, breeders and seed companies have been breeding tomatoes primarily for things like high yields for farmers and extended shelf life for retailers. Taste got lost in the shuffle.

Fortunately, great taste has become the new holy grail.

This summer a study published in the journal Science argued that a genetic mutation was discovered about 70 years ago and was bred into tomatoes to make the fruit turn a deep red and ripen more uniformly. But, the study argues, that same mutation also deactivated the gene responsible for sugars that give tomatoes its sweet flavor.

Seed companies and farmers know that consumers aren’t happy with the flavor found in today’s common supermarket tomato—and they’re working on the problem.

But it’s a slow process. One thing that may speed things along is molecular, or “marker-assisted,” breeding, Berry writes. This breeding process is greatly accelerating the discovery of genes that account for taste by eliminating the need for so much time-consuming trial and error methodology.

According to Dr. Klee, there are at least 20 different compounds that impact a tomato’s flavor, and at least a dozen genes. He has spent years conducting focus groups of 80 to 90 people a week, testing dozens of varieties of tomatoes to identify those that taste good. He then takes the ones most people prefer and deconstructs them, trying to decipher which genes make them tasty.

“If flavor was one gene,” he says, “we’d be done.”

Well, hey, at least we know somebody’s working on it. That’s a start. Maybe someday we’ll have grocery store and restaurant tomatoes that taste as good in February as they do in August.

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