Florida Scientists Want To Make Tomatoes Taste Better Through Natural Breeding

It might seem like something unusual to work on, but scientists have come up with a way to improve tomatoes’ taste.

Many of us may not notice it, but some, including the New York Times, have observed that supermarket tomatoes don’t taste as good as they used to. This was an observation shared by a group of researchers led by University of Florida professor of horticultural scientist Harry Klee, who published a paper this week in the journal Science, detailing the reasons why the flavor of tomatoes hasn’t been what it used to be in previous years, and what they plan to do about it.

In the paper, Klee’s team wrote that tomato flavor has been compromised due to chemicals that are lacking in most of today’s variants. They had also spotted two important things in their research – one, that there are specific genes that create these flavor-enhancing chemicals, and two, some wild and heirloom varieties naturally have “better versions” of these genes.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the research has the potential to be a “game-changer” in terms of making tomatoes taste better, and could also help tomato breeders in creating variants that can retain the aforementioned chemicals and maintain their tasty flavor, even if it could often take a while for tomatoes to get to the grocery or supermarket from the field.

“Now that all of us in the community know the genes that are relevant for emphasizing flavor, there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to make great tomatoes,” said former University of California Davis tomato researcher Ann Davis, speaking to the L.A. Times. She was not involved in the new study.

This was a project that had taken several years to accomplish, as the researchers looked into the levels of certain chemicals in close to 400 different kinds of tomatoes. A group of taste testers were then asked to single out which variants tasted good and which ones left something to be desired. The subjects tended to have different preferences depending on their gender, “foodie” or “non-foodie” background, and age, wrote the New York Times, but in the end, it was the sweeter variants that had won the taste test.

According to the researchers, there was no particular chemical change that was singled out as being responsible for the increasingly bland taste of modern tomatoes; instead, it was more of a cumulative change. All in all, there were 26 genes identified as being responsible for making tomatoes sweet and flavorful.

Using the information gleaned, Klee said that he and his colleagues are now working on a hybrid tomato whose taste will, as mentioned, survive the shipping process for the most part, but not skimp on what breeders now desire from tomatoes. He added that despite genetic engineering making for much quicker breeding, his team is making use of traditional breeding techniques.

“Now we know exactly what needs to be done to make it right. We just have to turn the crank … I don’t want people to not eat a great-tasting tomato because they’re scared of it.”

[Image by Handout/Getty Images]

Regarding the reason why a lot of tomatoes taste flat and unsatisfying, study first author Denise Tieman, also a professor at the University of Florida, was quoted as saying that modern supermarket tomatoes were bred in such a way that shelf life, firmness, and resistance to disease were prioritized, with taste seemingly falling to the wayside.

“That’s all very important, but as they bred for these things, modern tomatoes lost their flavor.”

Going forward, experts such as UC Davis’ recently-retired tomato specialist Powell believe that Klee’s research can also help breeders fine-tune tomatoes’ tastes depending on what’s demanded by a certain cuisine or culture.

“Tomatoes are used in cuisines around the world, and different cultures have different preferences for flavors they like. In Japan they like them super sweet, and in parts of Europe they like them with that green taste. Thanks to this work, the tomato can be made much more versatile.”

[Featured Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]