Rotten research on tasteless tomatoes
June 30, 2012
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?
In 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.
‘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.