UF Researchers Bring Back The Flavor Of Tomatoes

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Better tasting tomatoes may soon make a comeback.

University of Florida researchers have found a way to return the flavor of tomatoes after decades of mass production degraded its flavor.  

Over the course of 10 years, a team of 10 UF researchers at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences studied more than 400 different kinds of tomatoes and identified the genes that produce the chemicals for a better flavor, according to a recently published study.

Harry Klee, professor of horticultural sciences and the study’s lead researcher, led the international team of scientists from China, Spain and Israel.

“It’s the most important fruit/vegetable crop worldwide in value,” Klee said in an email. “I think it may be second in the state behind citrus, so it’s very important to global agriculture and the state of Florida.”

The flavor of tomatoes comes from the sugars, acids and aroma compounds, said Denise Tieman, a research assistant professor of horticulture.

“It’s the whole combination of these different aroma compounds that make that wonderful tomato taste,” Tieman said.“That’s what consumers are looking for, it’s that tomato flavor that you get from the tomatoes that you grow in your garden.”

Red ripe tomatoes hang hidden within the tomato plant. 70 to 100 people, women and men, young and old, were asked to describe the taste of tomatoes tested in the study. (Janine Wolf/WUFT News)
Red ripe tomatoes hang hidden within the tomato plant. 70 to 100 people, women and men, young and old, were asked to describe the taste of tomatoes tested in the study. (Janine Wolf/WUFT News)

About 70 to 100 people were asked to taste test the tomatoes.

“They usually say ‘sweet,’ ‘sour’ and ‘tomatoey,’” Tieman said of their descriptions, which were incorporated into the definition of the flavor.

Modern tomatoes are popular because they can be mass-produced and shipped, and are firm and storable, according to Tieman. These qualities make tomato production accessible year-round.

For the researchers, it was important to keep the qualities that allowed tomatoes to be accessible year-round. But, they wanted to add better flavor.

“We want the best of both worlds,” she said.   

When the more flavorful tomatoes make it to the market, the price may increase at first, but would naturally level out with time, according to Tieman.

Behind China, the United States is the second largest producer of tomatoes. Florida and California make up the largest share of tomato production, about two-thirds of total U.S. fresh-tomato acreage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Florida produces about 33,000 acres of tomatoes estimated at $437 million annually as of 2014, according to UF/IFAS economic research.

Tomato Growers Supply Company, located in Fort Myers, Florida, is a seed company supplying back-yard gardeners and small commercial farmers.

Linda Sapp, president and owner of the company, said it is “common knowledge” for tasty tomatoes to be difficult to find in the marketplace.

“I think it would have a major following in the market place,” Sapp said.

Sapp said her customers are of older generations and remember the flavor of tomatoes in the 1940s and 1950s.

However, she said the “flavor has taken a back seat” since that time.

Sapp said it’s terrible that young consumers are not aware of the lacking taste of commercially produced tomatoes.

According to Tieman, one of the students who taste-tested the tomatoes favored the supermarket tomato over the more flavorful one. Part of the process will be to retrain people’s taste for better flavor.

For now, the next step will be to selectively breed the tomatoes with the identified genetic makeup.

Though it may take breeders three to five years before consumers can gain access to them in supermarkets, UF researchers are hopeful about the study’s impacts.

“If we can improve flavor without compromising yield,” said Klee, “it could have a big impact, redirecting sales to the retail level, which is currently a progressively dwindling part of the supply.”

About Janine Wolf

Janine Wolf is a reporter with WUFT News. She can be contacted by calling 407-928-6317 or emailing janinewolfj9@gmail.com.

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