What happened to grocery store tomatoes?

Published 9:47 pm Saturday, July 30, 2016

Tomatoes. Who doesn’t love them?

I could eat a garden-fresh tomato a day. I could bite into them the way most people eat apples. Tomato sandwiches, BLTs, tomato and basil salad, salsa, stuffed tomatoes — there are endless ways to love tomatoes. My favorite may be simply sliced with salt and pepper.

But sadly, my tomato-loving days are limited. We have an abundance of tomatoes for about two months a year. After that it’s back to the hard, mealy, tasteless, grocery store variety. I flat out refuse to eat those tomatoes. They have no flavor and no amount of salt and pepper can save them. When a restaurant tosses them in a salad, they’re the first things I pick out (radishes are close behind).

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

But why exactly does a store-bought tomato lack the acidic, sweet flavor of those picked fresh from the garden? Why does it taste like cardboard? We only have ourselves to blame.

Apparently, the average consumer wants tomatoes that are uniform in color — perfectly red throughout. Garden-fresh tomatoes are sometimes lumpy, multi-colored and generally not very pretty. So, tomato growers responded to consumer demands and started growing fruits that are uniform in color and nicely shaped. They made pretty tomatoes. This was back in 1930.

But in the process, they produced a tomato that tastes like cardboard. Technically speaking, it’s a genetic mutation that results in less sugar and other tasty compounds, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times. That mutation “disrupts the production of a protein responsible for the fruit’s production of sugar.”

These mass-produced, factory tomatoes are uniformly light green before they ripen, thus the uniform red color we are accustomed to seeing on grocery shelves. The mass-produced tomato also ripens consistently, instead of at one end first, which makes it easier for farmers to know when it’s time to pick them. They also pack and ship better since they are rounder and firmer.

But real tomatoes are typically dark green at the top before they ripen, and apparently consumers just didn’t like their looks. That little bit of green around the “shoulder” is what makes a good tomato. Heirloom varieties like Cherokee Purple are especially green at the top before they ripen.

That dark green top on an unripe tomato is the result of two genes that are crucial for harvesting energy from sunlight. That gene is active in the leaves and the fruit of a good tomato but is inactive in the genetically modified, cardboard tomatoes.

“This is not the entire reason the modern tomato stinks — but it’s a real significant part of it,” Harry Klee, a specialist in the chemistry of fruit flavor at the University of Florida, told the newspaper. “I promise you, if I gave you two tomatoes that were 10 percent different in their sugar contents, you’d be able to tell the difference…. This is a very nice piece of science that really illustrates the pitfalls of breeding without knowing precisely what you’re doing.”

The sugar difference between a homegrown tomato and a grocery store variety can be much more than 10 percent.

Americans, for the most part, only buy “pretty” fruit so it’s understandable that growers gave them what they wanted. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, we associate good flavor with good looks. It’s why 25-40 percent of the produce grown in this country is thrown away.

“It’s all about blemish-free produce,” Jay Johnson, who ships fresh fruit and vegetables, told the Guardian newspaper. “What happens in our business today is that it is either perfect, or it gets rejected. It is perfect to them, or they turn it down. And then you are stuck.”

Maybe if consumers didn’t believe this silly notion about looks and flavor, we wouldn’t have tasteless tomatoes today.

So what’s a tomato-lover to do outside the two months when the garden is plentiful? For starters, look for tomatoes that are not perfectly red. If there’s a bit of green at the top, there’s a greater chance it’s going to taste better. You should ignore those fake-looking, uniform fruits no matter how appealing they seem.  You can also try to find greenhouse-grown tomatoes that are not a commercially produced variety.

More than likely, you’ll have to wait until that glorious two-month window each summer when the vines are sagging with homegrown tomatoes. In a way, their rarity makes them that much more appealing. But come January, when the winter winds are blowing and I’m craving a BLT, all that will matter is that I don’t have one. And I can thank America’s obsession with pretty fruit for that.

Luke Horton is publisher of The Daily Leader. Contact him at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.