The sad, lifeless, obligatory out-of-season tomato is found everywhere from pre-made salads to your local sports bar—but soon, that could change.
Photo via Flickr user Ruth Hartnup
Most people were glad to see terrible, no good, very bad 2016 go, and now that we're in a new year, those who were most eager to move on are realizing that 2017 isn't exactly turning out to be a picnic, either. If things have got you feeling down lately, here's some good news: We now know how to make tomatoes taste better. Hey, it's a start.
The sad, lifeless, obligatory out-of-season tomato is found everywhere from pre-made salads to your local sports bar, a pale and watery imitation of the Platonic ideal. Yet in the collective American consciousness, the flavorless iteration of the fruit has largely taken over. Thankfully, science is here to help.
A study published today in Science by an international group of researchers led by scientists at the University of Florida identified the chemical genetic traits of flavorful, on-point tomatoes. The study was huge in scope, studying nearly 400 types of tomatoes, from sweet little cherry tomatoes to big goofy-looking heirlooms, and offers American tomato growers a playbook to make tomatoes great again, so to speak.
"Commercially available tomatoes are renowned these days for sturdiness, but perhaps not for flavor," the study says. "Heirloom varieties, on the other hand, maintain the richer flavors and sweeter tomatoes of years past."
In the study, the scientists sequenced the genomes of 398 different kinds of tomatoes. They then grew 160 different varieties and fed them to as many as 100 study participants, who graded the tomatoes on taste. The researchers then looked at the genetic makeup of the tomatoes people prefer and were able to identify traits that make tomatoes optimally delicious and fragrant. As it turns out, tomatoes aren't one-trick ponies like pineapples or bananas, where one chemical really brings the flavor; rather, their taste is the result of a complex interplay of compounds.
"The real excitement of food is what you smell," one of the study's authors, Denise Tieman, told the Los Angeles Times. "When you chew, these aroma compounds get into your olfactory systems and that's what really makes things taste good."
They were also able to get a look under the hood at what's wrong with so many modern supermarket tomatoes. Today's standard red tomato is the result of growers breeding sturdy tomatoes built for pest-resistance, color, and long-distance shipping and shelf life. Some of those traits are mutually exclusive with the desirable qualities of the tastiest tomatoes.
Thanks to the research at the University of Florida, growers may be able to pick and choose qualities that can lead to better and, maybe, even brand new tomatoes with flavor profiles curated for different palates. This type of research is too expensive and time-consuming for tomato growers, so the study is something of a gift to the industry.
"You can almost assemble a molecular toolkit," Harry Klee, a co-author of the study, told The Verge. "We have identified a pathway to really significantly improve the flavor of tomatoes."
Handing over the figurative keys to farmers, it will now be up to them to see if they can make better tomatoes. Though the research will most benefit growers who sell their produce locally and don't have to ship long distance, let's hold out hope that the quality of tomatoes nationwide improves.
A better tomato means a better salad or sandwich, and that's something worth hoping for—even in 2017.