Supermarket Tomatoes Lost Their Flavor, But Scientists Came Up with a Fix

Tasty-Looking Cherry Tomatoes

It is common knowledge that most supermarket tomatoes taste like cardboard after years of commercial growing. A group of scientists however say they have a plan to bring the tastiness back.

The team explained growers altered the plants’ genetic makeup in their rush for profits. Fortunately the team managed to pinpoint the flavor-enhancing genes which got lost in the process. Researchers say they developed a “chemical genetic roadmap” that farmers can use to grow tasty tomatoes again.

The U.S. is World’s Second Largest Tomato Grower

Prof. Changbin Chen praised the work for being a breakthrough very few teams of scientists could have managed to achieve. Chen, who is a horticultural researcher at the University of Minnesota, said the findings could benefit commercial growers the most. The professor wasn’t involved in the research.

What’s more, the research could translate into a huge economic boost for the U.S., which is the world’s second largest producer behind China. The United States sells billion dollars worth of tomatoes every year. And the market is huge as the red fruits – yes tomatoes are technically fruits- are rich in vitamin A and C and add an extra flavor to numerous dishes.

Scientists believe the original tomatoes which South and Central American farmers domesticated some 2,500 years ago, didn’t look or taste at all like the one available year-round in our supermarkets. The original fruit was smaller, multi-hued and had a much stronger flavor. Tomatoes landed on other people’s plates after the Spanish colonization 400 years ago.

Over these hundreds of years, growers cultivated the plants but did not alter their taste or size. Before the World War II, the fruits were still sweet, small-sized, and flavorful. After the war, tomato crops exploded exponentially as growers wanted higher yields of evenly-riped and disease resistant fruits. Yet disease resistance and good looks came at a price. Mutated tomato lost some of their photosynthesizing abilities, so they produce less sugar and other nutrients. This is why, genetically altered tomatoes are so tasteless.

The Study

Co-author Harry Klee of the University of Florida, Chen, and an international team of scientists have planned to decode the tomato genome and see what changed in commercial varieties. The group analyzed the genetic makeup of nearly 400 types of wild and commercial tomatoes. Researchers said the taste of wild varieties and commercial ones is beyond comparison.

Scientists also surveyed dozens of consumer groups and conducted hundreds of taste tests to find out the most flavorsome varieties. In a final stage of the research, the team broke down tomatoes into their basic chemicals and molecules and made list with their chemical makeup and concentrations.

Researchers focused especially on the chemicals that interact with the olfactory system when a person eats a tomato. These chemicals aka volatiles account for the fruits’ specific taste. Next, the team compared the surveys with the chemical profiles and found 13 chemicals that make the fruits so tasty.

When the team analyzed once more the genome they detected the genes that trigger those volatiles in mature fruits. The team says that growers could crossbreed commercial crops with the ones that still carry these genes and obtain a generation of tomatoes that is both visually appealing and disease-resistant while it tastes really good. Growers could be achieve this over multiple generations, but it is doable in a few years.

The team published their findings Jan. 27 in the journal Science.
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