Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

Hang on, Little Tomato!

Ever take a big bite out of a supermarket tomato and think, "This is just delicious!"? Probably not. After decades of aggressive breeding to make the industrially grown vegetable more durable, the tomato doesn't taste much like a tomato anymore. But hang on, tomatoes, molecular scientists are pondering your palatableness, reports Steve Mirsky in Scientific American.

During a recent scientific meeting in Boston, Harry Klee, professor horticultural sciences at the University of Florida's Department Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, said that although post-World War II "intensive breeding" techniques gave tomatoes a longer shelf life, these commercial gains came at the loss of taste. "Modern tomatoes focus on yields, basically making too many fruit at same time," Klee said during his talk. "The plant can't keep up with filling those fruits with nutrients. So the effect of what the modern breeders have done is basically to take the old tomatoes and add water."

Klee and his colleagues at UFL are working to infuse taste back into the tomato. The team of researchers had a panel of tasters rate heirloom tomatoes of old lineages, then they pulverized the vegetables and analyzed the chemical compounds that influence their taste. In their work, Klee and his colleagues have identified six volatiles – chemical compounds in the tomato that influence a person's sense of taste – that enhance sweetness and two that suppress sweetness.

"These volatiles can really fool the brain," writes Mirsky. For example, tasters rated the Martina tomato variety twice as sweet as the so-called Yellow Jelly Bean tomato, even though the Martina has less sugar. Tasters found the Martina sweeter because that variety has the six sweetness enhancing volatiles in higher concentrations than the Yellow Jelly Bean.

Given these findings, researchers are trying to figure out ways to breed more flavorful tomatoes that still hold up to the demands of mass production. "So that when you say tomato, I don't say blehhh," Mirsky adds.