How to make a tastier tomato A woman shops for tomatoes at a grocery store in Des Moines, Iowa. Scientists have cooked up a way to reintroduce a key ingredient into mass-produced tomatoes: taste. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
How to make a tastier tomato
Lexile

Bite into a supermarket tomato and you'll probably notice something missing: taste. Scientists think they can put the yum back into the grocery tomato by tinkering with its genetic recipe.
 
Researchers are reinstalling five long-lost genetic traits that add much of the sweet-yet-acidic taste that had been bred out of mass-produced tomatoes for the past 50 years. They're using mostly natural breeding methods, not genetic modification technology.
 
"We know what's wrong with modern tomatoes and we have a pretty good idea how to fix it," said University of Florida horticultural scientist Harry Klee, co-author of a study that appeared in the journal Science.
 
Yield of tomatoes has tripled since 1960, but there's been a slow decline in taste quality as tomatoes have been bred for size and sturdiness at the expense of flavor. Klee said a tastier supermarket tomato could be ready within three years.
 
"Nobody deliberately set out to make tomatoes that don't have flavor," Klee said. "Basically it was a process of neglect."
 
One key issue is size. Growers keep increasing individual tomato size and grow more per plant. The trouble is that there is a limit to how much sugar each tomato plant can produce. Bigger tomatoes and more of them means less sugar per tomato and less taste, Klee said.
 
So Klee and colleagues looked at the genomes of the mass-produced tomato varieties and heirloom tomatoes to try to help the grocery tomatoes catch up to their backyard garden taste.
 
Good tiny heirloom tomatoes "are like eating candy," said New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who wasn't part of the study. "For people who care about how food tastes, it's a very big deal."
 
Klee isolated some sugar genes and ones that were more geared to pure taste, but figured those won't work as well because they clash against growers' shipping and size needs. So he found areas that affect the aroma of tomatoes, but not size or heartiness. Reintroducing those into mass-produced tomatoes should work because smell is a big factor in taste, he said.
 
Altering genes in a lab would make the process faster, but because of consumer distrust and regulations, Klee is opting for natural breeding methods - with help from an electric toothbrush to spread pollen. He's not quite there yet, but is close.
 
Jose Ordovas, a nutrition professor at Tufts University, applauds the work, but cautions: "It is possible that some traits are not compatible and you cannot make the plant to behave exactly the way that you want."
 
Reggie Brown of growers' Florida Tomato Committee praised the study, saying it could help make supermarket tomatoes taste better.
 
No matter how much tinkering scientists do to mass-produced tomatoes, picking them too early and refrigerating them can make them bland. And consumers do have to be willing to pay more to have fresher, unrefrigerated tomatoes, said Klee, who generally doesn't do the taste testing in his lab.
 
"I don't like raw tomatoes very much at all. You know, I'm kind of tired of them," he said.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What's wrong with modern tomatoes?
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COMMENTS (90)
  • tristanb-pel
    2/13/2017 - 09:32 a.m.

    Modern tomatoes are bland and missing flavor.

  • kevinl-pel
    2/13/2017 - 09:32 a.m.

    They are bland.

  • juliamc-pel
    2/13/2017 - 09:33 a.m.

    Modern tomatoes are neglected when being grown which makes them lose their flavor.

  • andya-pel
    2/13/2017 - 09:35 a.m.

    What is wrong with modern tomatoes is that they have been genetically modified to be bigger and sturdier and because of that it has lost some flavor and doesn't taste as good.

  • zackareeg-pel
    2/13/2017 - 09:35 a.m.

    The thing that is wrong with modern tomatoes is they do not have flavor and the size is terrible.

  • joshuag-pel
    2/13/2017 - 09:36 a.m.

    They all have no taste.

  • leslyr-pel
    2/13/2017 - 09:37 a.m.

    Modern tomatoes don't have the same taste they used to have.

  • seanm2-bur
    2/13/2017 - 12:54 p.m.

    The modern tomatoes are bred for size and mass production. The problem with this, is as time goes on, the taste of the tomatoes is slowly declining, getting worse as time goes on.
    My mom and I actually had the same problem. We used to grow our own tomatoes, and when I tasted them, they didn't really taste good. What happened was this: my mom tasted them, and she agreed. We tried using different planting techniques, and we got the taste back.

  • brandond-pla
    2/14/2017 - 11:14 p.m.

    This article describes new methods that researchers are using to try to increase tomato flavor. Recently, due to selective breeding for size and sturdiness, tomato taste has become quite bland. Researchers are now using natural breeding methods to boost tomato aroma and therefore increase tastiness.

    I believe that these researchers are working towards something bigger than just tomatoes. With their research, they are demonstrating that science can be geared directly towards improving lives in communities across the nation. If they can make their tomatoes more cost efficient to produce, then flavor can be brought back to food that has been genetically modified or mass produced. You'd be surprised how something as little as a tasty tomato can have a huge affect on society.

  • mckinleyo-pel
    2/15/2017 - 10:40 a.m.

    They are bland.

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