Food

How to pick the tastiest tomato, according to science

Tasteless tomatoes got you down? There's a reason that many modern tomatoes taste so bad — and a way to fix the problem — according to the authors of a new study published today in the journal Science. The key is knowing which tomatoes are likely to be the tastiest, and being willing to pay for them.

What makes for a good tomato?

One reason that it's so hard to find a good tomato is that a good tomato is a very complicated thing.

"There are about 25 to 30 volatile chemicals that are essential for good tomato flavor," as opposed to bananas or strawberries, which have a single chemical that confers their aroma, Harry J. Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida and one of the authors of the study, explained to TODAY. "It's a very complex mix. But we and others have shown very clearly that without the aroma profile, the tomato is very bland."

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Small tomatoes, big flavor

For the new study, a consumer panel helped evaluate the flavor of 160 tomato samples representing 101 varieties. Among other things, they found that smaller tomatoes tend to have better flavor.

"Cherry and grape tomatoes inherently have more flavor than the larger slicing tomatoes," Klee said. (As a side note, while this particular study did not address nutrition, other research has shown that smaller tomatoes tend to be higher in the antioxidant lycopene and other healthy compounds.) Of the varieties they assessed, some tasty little tomatoes you might actually find at your local grocery store or farmers market or that you could grow from seed include Cherry Roma and Maglia Rosa Cherry. Large tomatoes that rated well include Brandywine, German Queen and Gulf State Market.

Tomato Pie
Elizabeth Heiskell shares a tomato pie recipe
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Money matters

Economics play a large role in the decline of tomato flavor: Breeders have prioritized yield, disease resistance and shelf life over sweetness and aroma, Klee explained.

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"The modern distribution and retailing system does not provide the grower any premium for better flavor," Klee said. "There is no financial incentive for the growers to choose a variety with better flavor if yield is even slightly compromised." But there are tomatoes and growers who are trying to deliver better quality tomatoes, Klee added. "Bottom line: If people are persistent and willing to pay a premium, growers will respond to the demand."

The tomato of the future

So is it possible to create a tomato that's sturdy, shippable and tasty?

"Yes," said Klee. He said it's a matter of breeding tomatoes to have more of those volatile aromatics that give them flavor. That can be accomplished with traditional breeding methods, he said, "crossing the old tasty varieties with the modern commercial varieties."

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He and his team at the University of Florida have developed various new hybrids by crossing "modern, disease resistant, high-yielding parents with highly flavorful heirlooms."

One of his favorites is the Garden Gem, which he says tastes just as good as an heirloom tomato but produces five times the crop. You can't buy the Garden Gem in stores — Slate has a great article about that — but if you're a home gardener, you can get a sample of the seeds by donating to support Klee's research. In other words, the tomato of the future could be growing in your yard this summer.

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