Researchers try to fix broken tomato

A research presentation in Boston has heard of scientific efforts to put flavour back into our tomatoes. Photograph: Alejandro Acosta/Reuters

A research presentation in Boston has heard of scientific efforts to put flavour back into our tomatoes. Photograph: Alejandro Acosta/Reuters

Thu, Feb 14, 2013, 00:00

What do you do when your tomato breaks? You fix it of course.

A research presentation in Boston has heard of scientific efforts to put flavour back into our tomatoes. The idea is to work backwards, starting from what is good for the consumer rather than what is good for the producer and breeder, said Prof Harry Klee of the University of Florida.

He was speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which got under way today in Boston.

A consumer panel was assembled and participants tasted various forms of modern and “heritage” tomato varieties, he said. Once desirable flavours were pinpointed, most often associated with sweetness or lack of bitterness, he began a breeding programme to try and put flavour back into the tomatoes that reach our shops.

“People want cheap food and people are paying the price for cheap food,” he said yesterday. “Can we take that industrial tomato and make it taste great? That is the real question.”

Many of our fruits and vegetables have fallen foul of the industrialisation of our foods. Prof Klee pointed to the tasteless strawberries that look great but have no flavour. The same has occurred in other horticultural areas, for example the modern tendency for roses to have “absolutely no scent”.

“The heart of the problem is the system is set up in such a way that there is absolutely no contact between the people developing the product and the people using the product,” he said. His attempts to work backwards from the consumer side “should product a product people really like”.

Often what we most like is no more than a bit of sugar, other participants in the session said. Research by Prof Valerie Duffy of the University of Connecticut shows that spoon full of sugar really does help the medicine go down.

She described efforts to increase childhood consumption of vegetables, which in much of the western world “is not very good”. “What we want to do is pay more attention to the behavioural science,” she said.

Childhood taste for vegetables of all sorts is laid down very early, so if a child shuns vegetables, as an adult they will also shun vegetables. The goal therefore is to get them eating the stuff young.

Her studies have shown that a “light misting” of sugar on vegetables immediately makes them more palatable to children. Even a quarter or half teaspoon is enough to overcome the natural bitterness of some veg. And this did not represent an extra calorific burden, adding only a few extra calories which is a good payoff given the wider health benefits of eating your greens.

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