If you’ve eaten one in the past few years, you probably noticed: Tomatoes today look good, but they taste bad. Or, more accurately, they don’t really taste like anything.
Scientists may now have figured out why. It seems that decades of breeding tomatoes for a uniform color have propagated a gene mutation that results in reduced sugar content (and, perhaps, reduced flavor), according to a story posted on the website Science on June 28.
For the last seven or so decades, tomato breeders have been selecting for tomatoes that turn an even, green color before they’re ripe, so farmers and pickers can easily identify their readiness for picking, knowing they’ll have reached an even, red color by the time consumers are looking them over at the grocery store. Consumers, it seems, like an evenly colored tomato too.
Now scientists are pointing to a gene, known as SIGLK2, as the driver of this even coloring (which is in distinction from most garden tomatoes, which usually ripen unevenly, with green splotches). That gene is inactive in almost all farmed tomatoes, and because of that, those tomatoes have fewer chloroplasts (which convert CO2 and water to sugar) and less sugar. When scientists introduced an active SIGLK2 into the tomatoes (that could also be accomplished through traditional breeding practices), the fruit’s glucose and fructose levels rose by up to 40 percent. (Regulations prohibited the scientists from eating those tomatoes, but they theorized that the increased levels of sugars would make them tastier.) Levels of lycopene, an antioxidant compound that may help protect against cancer and heart disease, also increased when the mutation was reversed.
The effect of this genetic alteration was a real surprise to scientists, according James J. Giovannoni of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Research Service and an author of the paper on the research. The fact that evenly ripening tomatoes became the norm for their appearance, even as they lost their flavor, is “a story of unintended consequences.” He added, “Producers currently don’t get a penny more for [flavor] quality.”
What has happened to tomatoes is the opposite of what has happened to beef. Since the 1991 National Beef Quality Audit, the industry has improved quality and consistency. Beef producers do — or can, if they choose — get paid more for quality and flavor, thanks to programs such as Certified Angus Beef, Certified Hereford Beef and other value-added supply programs. And in the case of beef, the improvements in quality and uniformity have helped increase efficiency at the same time.
In responding to the most recent NBQA, 96 percent of respondents said they intentionally influenced beef quality on the ranch, mostly through good stockmanship practices but also through preventative health measures, nutrition, management and genetics. And all industry segments (except feeders) ranked eating satisfaction as their second-highest priority (after food safety).
But the tale of the tomato could be a lesson to beef producers: Consumers certainly do want food that looks good, but they’ll definitely notice if the taste doesn’t match the appearance.