Why do tomatoes have no taste?

It’s harvest time, a time for celebrating the freshest of foods, and most especially great tomatoes.

Tomatoes are fundamental to the skier diet.  How can you have a burger without a flavorful juicy slice of tomato?  The slice is still there, but does it have any taste?  When was the last time you had a tomato that had any aroma or taste?  Not one purchased in a grocery store, even one labeled “wine ripened;” mostly “water bombs.”  Perhaps a tomato purchased in a farmer’s market?  Maybe only buying heirloom tomatoes?

The answer, surprise, surprise, has to do with revenue.  Where taste was once the priority; durability, longevity, and a cosmetically attractive appearance now reign.  “[tomato] plants first and foremost must produce high yields of large, uniform fruit.  They have to be able to resist diseases and tolerate extremes of heat and cold.  And their tomatoes need to have a long shelf life.  Taste enters the equation, if it enters at all, only after all of those conditions are met,” John Warner Scott, University of Florida Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, quoted in Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook (Andrews McMeel, 2018).  Most of the commercial tomatoes have been hybridized to meet the demands of mechanical harvesting, disease prevention, distribution, and shelf life.  “There is no easy way to breed for taste,” Scott continued.

An additional concern is the petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides applied to virtually all commercially grown tomatoes.

Farmers learned that if tomatoes are harvested when they first show a hint of color, that point known as “the breaker stage,” it would turn red in about two weeks.  Tomato production today is a multi-billion-dollar industry.  Tomatoes picked at the breaker stage are typically sent to warehouses where they are force-ripened with ethylene gas.  The tomatoes are red enough to satisfy the average consumer but not fully ripe when shipped to stores.  

If you are old enough that your “used to” goes back as far as mine does, the tomatoes I remember came from father’s and my grandmother’s gardens.  My father was born in Alabama and raised on a farm.  He was In the U.S. Navy in WWII and later in the U.S. Air Force, consequently I moved a lot growing up.  There was one constant, however, my dad always carried tomato seeds with him to wherever we were transferred, mostly beefsteak tomato seeds.  Once the family was settled, my dad headed outside to plant his tomato garden with the seeds he had brought with him.

My father was transferred to the Italian Air Force base at Giola-del-Colle, Italy.  With no nearby local family housing, my father rented a villa in Capo San Vito outside Taranto, near the lighthouse.  One day the landlord walked into the garden to find my dad planting tomato seeds.  He asked my dad why he bothered because all he had to do was walk to the old Italian lady’s vegetable stand down the street for homegrown tomatoes.  While my mother and father sometimes did exactly that, the tomatoes were simply not planted, nurtured and harvested by my dad.  You can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy.

It’s not just the taste of the commercial tomato that is lacking, it is the aroma, that special “tomato smell” that generates excited expectations of flavor and deliciousness.  In a study published in Nature Genetics, researchers including those from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, and the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, both at Cornell University, have mapped the genome of the modern cultivated tomato as well as tomatoes that still grow in the wild.  The team marked thousands of genes that were previously unknown, comparing the genomes of cultivated tomatoes with their wild relatives, and made more than a few interesting discoveries.

In comparing the cultivated tomatoes to their wild counterparts, the researchers noted literally thousands of genes that were missing from the produce we typically find in our supermarkets.  In the never-ending quest to develop plants that produce bigger tomatoes at a faster rate, growers have favored plants that also produce inferior-tasting fruit.

“One of the most important discoveries from constructing this pan-genome is a rare form of a gene labeled TomLoxC, which mostly differs in the version of its DNA gene promoter,” James J. Giovannoni, co-author of the paper, said in a statement, “The gene influences fruit flavor by catalyzing the biosynthesis of a number of lipid (fat)-involved volatiles – compounds that evaporate easily and contribute to aroma.”  Based on their own testing, the researchers believe that the flavor-enhancing gene is only present in around 2 percent of modern store-bought tomatoes, but was found in over 90 percent of wild tomatoes.  

(https://bgr.com/2019/05/14/tomato-flavor-nature-study-genetics/)  Gao, L., Gonda, I., Sun, H. et al. The tomato pan-genome uncovers new genes and a rare allele regulating fruit flavor. Nat Genet 511044–1051 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41588-019-0410-2

A long scientific explanation of why commercial tomatoes have no aroma and no taste.

“When you buy tomatoes at a farmer’s market, you can choose from the widest possible selection, including heirloom varieties that were bred for flavor, not for industry.  All the tomatoes are grown by local farmers and picked when ripe.  Buying tomatoes from local farmers is like growing your own tomatoes - without all the work.

At farmers markets, you will be able to shop by variety.  Farmers know the varietal names of their produce, as do produce managers in specialty stores that sell local and heirloom tomatoes. …  Heirloom tomatoes vary greatly in their nutritional value.  The intensely flavored Red Pear heirloom tomato has an astounding twenty-seven times more lycopene than the typical supermarket tomato. … Shop [at farmer’s markets] and you will bring home the most nutritious and delicious tomatoes.”

Jo Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side by (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).  Check out Robinson’s Website at www.eatwild.com.

We went to the Farmer’s Market in the pouring rain on Saturday of our last weekend in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur where we were studying at the Institute de Français.  We saw “regular” and heirloom tomatoes at the first vendeur de legumes at which we stopped, gorgeous color and aroma, obviously home grown and hand-picked.  In our barely workable French, we had the most wonderful “attempted” conversation with the vendeur.  We tried to explain, in French, the difference between heirloom tomatoes and regular tomatoes as experienced in the United States.  It was delightfully hilarious trying to teach him to say “heirloom”; he just did not understand the word even when I spelled it in French.  To the vendeur, they were just different kinds of tomatoes; nothing special.  Of course, we purchased several; we had a week and several more meals in which to enjoy the local tomatoes.

On our way back to the apartment we swung by the vendor’s booth to say “Au revoir.”  Ellen told him he had to practice saying “heirloom” like we had to practice our française.  We all had a great laugh and he wished us well.  Our interaction with this vendeur de legumes and his exquisite tomatoes are one of our most cherished memories of our time in Villefranche.

Unfortunately, it is not likely to find homegrown tomatoes during ski season, although recently in March I did find some heirloom tomatoes at Albertson’s, undoubtedly hothouse grown and most probably not in the US. Only two of the dozen had any aroma at all, and not much at that.  Desperate for some real tomato taste I bought both, one was somewhat flavorful, the other mostly flat water.

If you have flavorful tomatoes you can always make a Caprese salad, tomato slices topped with, preferably, fresh Mozzarella di Bufala and fresh basil, drizzled with a little olive oil.  To really bring out the tomato flavor, thickly slice (½ inch) the tomato and sprinkle it with kosher or sea salt about a few minutes before adding the mozzarella, basil and olive oil.  The salt releases the tomato’s aroma.  Serve with warm crusty bread.

No handy mozzarella or basil, not to worry.  Prepare the tomatoes as above, sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, add thin slices of red or purple onion and capers, drizzle with olive oil and Balsamico di Modena.  Molto yummy.

All is not lost, however.  Two of the quintessential skier foods are pizza and pasta, both usually made with tomato sauce and tomato paste.  Again quoting Robinson:

“I've saved one of the biggest surprises for last.  The most nutritious tomatoes in the supermarket are not in the produce section - they're in the canned goods aisle.  Processed tomatoes, whether canned or cooked into a paste or sauce, are the richest known sources of lycopene.  The reason is that the heat of the canning process makes the lycopene more bioavailable.  Interestingly, processed tomatoes are also more flavorful than the typical supermarket tomato.  Tomatoes grown for the food industry are picked when red-ripe, and they are processed immediately, sometimes within a few hours.  No flavor is lost along the way.

Tomato paste, the most concentrated form of processed tomato, has up to ten times more lycopene than raw tomatoes.  Tomatoes produce lycopene to protect themselves from UV rays.  Eating tomato paste has the same effect on us. … 

Unlike most other canned tomato products, tomato paste has no added salt or sugar; it's the concentrated essence of ripe tomatoes.  When you add the paste to prepared foods, such as canned soups, pasta sauces, salsas, and ketchup, the paste will add flavor, color, and nutrients and also dilute their high salt or sugar content.”  Is it time to revisit my earlier post “To paste, or not to paste?”

With all of this knowledge you can confidently know that besides being great skier fuel every slice of pizza and every pasta dish is not only good eating, but also good nutrition.  Another slice to go, please.