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Rotten research on tasteless tomatoes

Tomato 'Sweet Million' - rated highly for flavor by Raymond Blanc. Image ©Sakata Inc
This week the New York Times reports a paper in the journal Science which is said to reveal why modern tomatoes have no flavor. Apparently, the mutation that plant breeders bred out in order to prevent greenback (green shoulder) also “plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato”.

Harry Klee, a tomato researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved in the research, is quoted in the Times as saying that the discovery “is one piece of the puzzle about why the modern tomato stinks.”

What planet are they on? Modern tomatoes don’t “stink”. Some don't taste of much, one or two are pretty much inedible, but there are plenty of modern tomato varieties with both a high sugar content and a wonderful flavor. Why base a serious piece of research on such prejudiced judegement - apart from the fact that it makes good copy?

Tomato 'Apero', rated highl;y for sweetness and flavour by the RHS. Image ©RHSIn 2007 the Royal Horticultural Society grew forty two different cherry tomatoes. You can read their report. Twelve were recommended for gardeners and received the RHS Award of Garden Merit. The sugar level was measured in each and the flavor assessed. Let me quote a few comments on three individual varieties: ‘Apero’ (left, click to enlarge), with a Brix-test result of 9.5% average sugar content, had a “good flavour”. ‘Golden Sweet’, with a Brix-test result of 10%, had a “good flavour and texture”. ‘Rosada’ (below right, click to enlarge) had a Brix-test result of 10.5%, the highest of all, and a “good sweet flavour.” True, it would have been better if they could have given a little more detail on flavor, but still – they rated them highly. All are modern F1 Hybrids. Tomato 'Rosada', rated highly by the RHS for sweetness and flavour. Image ©RHS

‘Sweet Million’ (top, click to enlarge), another modern F1 Hybrid, bred in Japan, also has an AGM but although it has a lower Brix test result of 7.1% the good balance of sweetness and acidity creates a flavour that was praised by renowned chef Raymond Blanc in the RHS magazine The Garden. He said this gave “a good tomato experience… juicy, excellent mouth-feel’”.

In fact Raymond Blanc took part in an extensive tomato taste test reported in The Garden in 2007. A number of varieties had good flavour, many of them modern. As well as ‘Sweet Million’ Raymond Blanc also liked ‘Santa’, another F1 Hybrid bred in Japan, and the opinion on ‘Santa’ was summed up by three judges: “Clean, meaty flavour. Well-balanced acid/sugar. Juicy fleshy texture.” ‘Santa’ is probably the most widely grown supermarket cherry tomato.

Another of Raymond Blanc’s favourites in the taste test was ‘Floridity’: "This is the best so far, good texture, excellent tomato experience," he said. The collective view of all the tasters was: “Outstanding flavour. Fleshy and juicy. Perfect acid/sugar balance”. This is a British-bred F1 Hybrid plum type.

Modern tomato varieties have no flavor? Nonsense.

So. Firstly. It’s simply not true that modern tomatoes have no sweetness and no flavor. Secondly, some modern varieties taste better than others; same as potatoes, carrots, apples and other vegetables. Choosing the right variety, modern or heirloom, is crucial. Thirdly, how you grow tomatoes makes a huge difference to the way they taste. Fourthly, if the researchers kept their tomatoes in the fridge all bets are off anyway – that’s a great way to ruin the flavor.

Comments

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Jonathan Knisely

There's a huge gap that is not adequately acknowledged in your article between commodity tomatoes and tomatoes grown and consumed locally.

Your article provides some very useful links for identifying tomatoes that we may want to grow, but consider the situation that anyone at a greengrocer may encounter--tomatoes are not labeled, like apples, by cultivar name, in the vast majority of retail outlets. I presume the same is true for wholesale tomatoes. The fact that we may be able to think of several exceptions is the proof of the rule.

The role of a commodity tomato slice in a sandwich is to provide a bit of moisture. The role of a commodity tomato wedge in a salad is to provide a bit of color; it wouldn't have been something that anyone would put into their mouth if it didn't have some salad dressing on it.

That is so different than a tomato that is grown locally in season, in which the flavor and savor are substantial enough that it is a different entity altogether.

What the research finding will permit is the selective identification of, and selection for in breeding programs, tomatoes that have the qualities needed to be commodity products (pick before fully ripe and ship, and hold in storage), but which have the genetic background that will permit the development of mouthwatering flavor together with the good looks to together tantalize the consumer despite these hurdles.

I'm optimistic that commodity tomatoes will improve as a result of this research, just as commodity sweet corn improved. It can now be picked hundreds of miles away, and shipped and held without the loss of the sweetness that makes it a special treat. The other flavor components are also improving--it's not just the sugar, but the 'corn' flavor that they can work on currently.

Kathryn Marsh

Klee does say that chilling is a disaster - but he then goes on to mention three "Heritage", i.e. open pollinated, varieties, two of which, Cherokee purple and Mortgage Lifter, I've grown in both Oklahoma and Ireland. Cherokee Purple was good in Oklahoma, tasteless in Ireland, while Mortgage Lifter, as its name suggests, produced large quantities of tomatoes fit only for the compost heap as far as flavour went in both. What really worried me was the sweet equals tasty assumption - as both you and Jonathan rightly say flavour is about balance. One thing that has heartened me recently is that one international supermarkert chain has recently taken to shipping, unchilled but underripe, a very thin skinned tomato wouldn't ship ripe but which seems to be happy to finish ripening on my kitchen counter to a higher level of flavour than many others even when they are ripe. Variety name isn't on it but it looks as tastes like a close relative of Cuor de Bue

Shyra @ storage box

I really have no idea about those modern tomatoes. I just go for those big and delicious looking I find on the stores. I am not really particular on the variety but I can say that all I bought taste really good. I do agree that maybe the taste depends on how you grow them.

Liz

Your post got me thinking, see here
http://gardenwithliz.com/blog/2012/07/tomato-flavor/
I often want the grocery store tomatoes, not heirlooms I grow. The taste is different, but not necessarily worse.

Funny

Some of the articles about the Science article stated that the researchers did not taste the tomatoes. They put tasting the tomatoes off limits as part of their rules.

Fiona Gilsenan

I read the article as describing tomatoes commercially grown for the supermarkets, not at all for those grown by home gardeners. Here's a bit more info from Treehugger and a quote from Harry Klee about his research that seems to confirm that interpretation:

"This is the first step to restoring good flavor in commercial tomatoes. Consumers care deeply about tomatoes. Their lack of flavor is a major focus of consumer dissatisfaction with modern agriculture. One could do worse than to be known as the person who helped fix flavor."

I do think it's remarkable that the tomatoes sold in supermarkets in Canada and US have absolutely no taste whatsoever. The local grocery store in Victoria also sold 'heirloom' (aka lumpy and yummy) tomatoes but at a considerable price hike--4.99 per pound versus 2.99 per pound for the typical tomato.


Graham Rice

My point is that the comprehensive assertion with which all this research begins - "modern tomatoes have no flavor" - is simply not true. So to connect this sweeping assertion to breeding out a specific gene which has removed the flavor from all modern tomato varieties is just nonsense. As I mentioned, 'Santa', a modern supermarket favorite, is also a favorite for its flavor of top chef Raymond Blanc.

Tomatoes on sale in the supermarket may have little flavor, but that's far more likely to be the result of the way the crop is grown. I’ve tasted heirlooms from the supermarket that had very little flavor.

A much more useful piece of research would be to grow a selection of modern and heirloom varieties of various types using a range of different growing methods, in different parts of the country. Perhaps then we would find out if an heirloom variety grown hydroponically in a greenhouse tastes the same as one grown outside in soil.

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Your article provides some very useful links for identifying tomatoes that we may want to grow, but consider the situation that anyone at a greengrocer may encounter--tomatoes are not labeled, like apples, by cultivar name, in the vast majority of retail outlets. I presume the same is true for wholesale tomatoes. The fact that we may be able to think of several exceptions is the proof of the rule.

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