Saturday, July 4, 2009

Why supermarket tomatoes have no taste

It's an old cliche that 'nothing tastes like a garden-fresh tomato.' The ones you find at the supermarket often seem to be hard, watery and tasteless.

The reasons can be summed up in two words: Industrial Agriculture.

Prior to the 1940s, when the U.S. was still a predominantly rural country, most people only ate food they and their neighbors could grow and store. If it didn't grow in your town or couldn't be kept canned, salted, dried or in a cool cellar, you rarely ate it. My great aunt once described how she and her siblings would often receive oranges as Christmas presents.

As the decades rolled by, Americans flooded into cities looking for opportunities, and flooded out into the suburbs with their new-found wealth. Much like today's organic and foodie enthusiasts, contemporary Americans were excited by the possibility of having a greater diversity of food for a greater proportion of the year. Truck farms sprang up in regions that benefited from mild climates and proximity to major urban centers. Huge quantities of fresh produce were produced in areas such as southern New Jersey (hence "The Garden State" and "Jersey tomatoes"), and shipped to nearby cities such as New York.

This huge demand for new and better varieties supported professional plant breeders who worked to increase the yields and stress tolerance of their favorite crops. Economies of scale rewarded growers who set up massive farms in warm climates with long growing seasons and shipped their product across the country as opposed to working locally with whatever resources were available. Plant breeders helped get more food to the people at an affordable price by focusing on producing varieties that could be harvested by machines and sit for long periods of time on trucks and grocery shelves before going bad. These new varieties were often less tasty than their ancestors, but they were available, inexpensive and an important source of healthy, diverse food for new urbanites.

Tomato is a particularly informative example. In the 1940s, a Cornell agricultural scientist discovered a natural mutation in his field tomatoes. One plant produced green fruit that refused to ripen. Over time it was discovered that this plant has a broken version of a gene that is a master regulator of ripening. A normal tomato plant has two good versions of this gene while a plant with two broken versions is ripening-inhibited (rin). A plant that has one good copy and one broken copy ripens very slowly and never quite becomes as flavorful as a normal tomato - but it can be shipped long distances and stored for long periods of time without rotting into ketchup. These hybrids represent a very large proportion of supermarket tomatoes.

Now that consumers are demanding higher quality in addition to availability, plant breeders and agronomists are working hard to create new varieties and growing practices that supply people with the best tasting and most nutritious foods they can at a reasonable price.


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  2. Pretty cool post, Matt. Interesting to me as a major produce export of Merced County (and the San Joaquin Valley) is "Fresh Market" tomatoes. These tomatoes are picked (by hand) green, and then gassed with ethylene to give them color. These tomatoes are stored green and then shipped to the destination. They are usually gassed en route, or at the arriving destination. Not really that surprising, but the largest consumers are corporate businesses such as Subway, Applebees, etc.

    I just ate some today for lunch - they were on my hamburger...not bad, not great, a little watery, but it could have been worse!

  3. Whenever people tell me they don't like tomatoes, I suspect it's because they've only had the nasty supermarket kind. I grew up eating tomatoes grown in the back yard so I know their true tastiness. :)

  4. Yeah Dave, that those are the "fresh" tomatoes especially makes sense when you pass Subways way out in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.

    One of the other recent trends is to select AGAINST abscission of the fruit from the stem. Usually you don't want stems attached to the fruit because they'll puncture each other in transit, but it's become popular recently to see clusters of tomatoes still attached to the vine to imply folksy tastiness.

  5. Julie, I was recently told the same about apples. My boss insists that I try the local apple varieties when they're in season this fall. I guess old supermarket red delicious can't compare...

  6. One of the biggest problem with Red Delicious apples is that they'll keep nearly forever. By mid-summer there's a reasonable chance that a Red Delicious you buy in the grocery store was actually picked nearly a year ago. In fact, sometimes they can be worst during the beginning of apple season, when they're trying to clean out apples that have been in storage since the previous season.

    Not that Red Delicious is stellar even at its best.

  7. Interesting... I imagine the same was going on when the grocery store was selling ratty-looking "Local New York" sweet corn in June...



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