Study Explains Why the Modern Tomato Tastes Like Cardboard

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CC BY 2.0. °Florian

°Florian/CC BY 2.0

Summer tomatoes are so filled with promise: The deep, saturated color; the unique grassy fragrance; the expectation of a mouthful of sweet-salty tomato exuberance. But alas, supermarket-tomato after supermarket-tomato do little more than disappoint. How can a fruit with such potential constantly taste like a slightly-salty-watery-nothing at best, and a mealy globe of cardboard at worst?

We know that modern tomatoes are picked green and bred for pest-resistance, shipping and shelf life – and that the agriculture industry creates produce designed for profit not flavor. Are these the factors to blame for the tomato’s blasé demeanor?

Even when allowed to ripen on the vine and shipped with great care, modern tomatoes are still insipid. Researchers have been looking into this tomato matter, and have recently uncovered a genetic cause for the fruit’s tedium.

The mischievous culprit is a gene mutation discovered accidentally around 70 years ago, and quickly latched onto by tomato breeders; in fact, now the mutation has been deliberately bred into nearly all modern tomatoes. Why? It makes them a uniform and seductive deep scarlet red when ripe.

Unfortunately for tomato-lovers, as reported in a paper published in the journal, Science, the red-making mutation deactivates an important gene responsible for producing the sugar and aromas that are essential for a fragrant and flavorful tomato.

When researchers “turned on” the deactivated gene, the fruit had 20 percent more sugar and 20 to 30 percent more carotenoids when ripe – yet its non-uniform color and greenish pallor suggest that mainstream breeders will not be following suit. So we’re stuck with beautiful tomatoes that taste like a mere hint of their former selves.

Yet, for anyone with a nearby farmer’s market or a garden in back, there is a workaround for cardboard-flavored tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes and wild species have not had the tomato-ness sucked out of them by selective breeding – so shop for them, or grow them yourself. They may not look like the Disney version of a perfect fruit, but they actually taste like, get this, tomatoes!

Browse all of our tomato content for mouth-watering tomato recipes, savvy tomato growing tips, and up-to-the minute tomato breakthroughs.