The Great Tomato MysteryPosted: July 31, 2012 in Healthy Eating by Craig Primack MD FACP
How modern tomatoes lost their taste
When you think about tomatoes, the last thing that jumps to mind may be flavor. Though many people love the bright red fruit for its juiciness and nutritional value, the unfortunate reality is that most of today’s tomatoes are bland and tasteless, a watery shadow of what they should be.
If you’re a patient of medical weight management, you’ve likely already explored many different diet and exercise options to help with weight loss. Though you should stick to any guidelines given to you by your weight loss doctor, finding foods that are nutritious and delicious will make you more motivated to eat healthy by increasing your desire to continue eating those nutritious foods.
Despite the bland state of most tomatoes in American supermarkets, the tomato can actually be very aromatic, flavorful and richly textured. It’s an important part of the culinary traditions of many cultures and often makes it into our daily diets, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who claims that the tomato is the tastiest fruit.
What happened? Why has the tomato become so boring and flavorless?
A Problem of Genetics
When tomatoes are picked before they ripen fully, shipped long distances and refrigerated for extended periods of time, their texture and flavor can often be ruined. Though it may tempting to think that these modern farming and shipping practices are the culprit behind this mystery of missing flavor, a recent discovery shows that a genetic issue may actually be to blame.
In the 1940s, tomato breeders accidentally discovered a gene that made tomatoes ripen into a uniform and striking scarlet red. In those days, most tomatoes ripened with a ring of green, yellow or white near the stem that many customers found unappealing, so tomato breeders quickly began to mutate the uniform ripening gene into all their crops in an effort to win over more consumers. The ripening gene also made it easier for farmers to determine when to harvest their crops, as most growers harvest tomatoes all at once.
Unfortunately, focusing on this gene had unintended consequences. Though the ripening gene increased the tomato’s commercial appeal, it also inactivated another gene in the fruit that plays an important role in developing the natural sugars that make a tomato sweet-smelling and delicious. By making the tomato more attractive to the eye, breeders unintentionally made it less attractive to the taste buds.
Saving the Tomato
Though this genetic tinkering has maligned tomatoes for decades, new research is helping to guide tomato breeders back on the path to a tastier tomato. Improving the tomato’s flavor will need the participation of the seed industry, which will ideally develop an interest in providing their customers with a better tasting product. This discovery may mean tomatoes that have a rich flavor and an evenly red color in the near future.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should outright exclude tomatoes from your diet in the meantime. Packed full of vitamins C, K and A and many other important nutrients, tomatoes can be a great addition to any weight loss diet, and varieties like heirloom tomatoes and wild species do not contain the ruinous ripening mutation. As we eagerly await the day when the state of conventional tomatoes improves, our best bet in finding the tomato flavor we’ve been missing is by going straight to the most natural sources, like organic grocers, farmers’ markets and our own backyards.