Tomatoes

New research published in the journal Science and featured in last week’s New York Times may shed some light on the reasons why you can’t ever seem to find a tomato that tastes… like a tomato.

According to the team of scientists (which included members of the USDA’s Research Service) who made the discovery, a gene that was “inactivated” by a genetic mutation that occurred by accident when tomatoes were bred to turn their signature bright red hue when ripe, may be the reason they’ve lost their flavor.

The uniformly red tomato did not occur that way naturally, cites the researchers. About 70 years ago, breeders found the red variety and began breeding it to decrease the more common traits in tomatoes, which included rings of yellow, white and green in the skin. But, what the researchers found is that the pre-red dark green shade (darker than the light green common in most unripe tomatoes available now) is actually important to the flavor; it creates a sugar the plant consumes as food. The mutation forces the tomato to go from light green to ripe, losing the critical sugar stage which, as you probably guessed, affects the fruit’s flavor, too.

Using genetic engineering technology, the research team “turned on” the deactivated gene they thought was responsible for the flavor loss and the fruits became darker green along with producing 20 percent more sugar and carotenoids. USDA researchers are not allowed to eat their experiments, so no one was actually able to taste the results. But if the ripening stages were any indicator of flavor, there’s a good chance the experiment tomatoes tasted more like tomatoes are supposed to taste like than not.

While the study’s tomatoes aren’t hitting the market anytime soon (they’re genetically modified, anyway), certain tomato varieties, particularly heirlooms, don’t contain the mutation, and flavorful ones can be found especially during tomato season.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: visualdensity