Tomato taste finding a way back into love apples

Photo by Ann Whitehill

Flavorful tomatoes are making a comeback, after years of growers selecting for size, yield, pest resistance, and other considerations.

 

Have you experienced the unbearable sadness of a lackluster tomato? Standing in front of the tables piled high with perfect, red, round fruit, we convince ourselves that we know how to pick one that will be a tasty prize on our salad. Sadly, finding a commercially grown tomato with moan-worthy flavor is like finding a needle in a haystack.

“Tomato is a particularly complicated flavor; there are many genes producing many different flavors. But it’s also a product of the environment, soil, and tomato quality. And it’s highly subjective to each individual,” says Dr. Harry Klee, Horticulture Professor with the University of Florida and renowned researcher known for his work in breeding flavor back into commercially grown tomatoes.

Modern tomatoes aren’t as flavorful – it’s been proven, says Klee, due to breeders selecting for size, yield, pest resistance, and other grower considerations. Each selection for these things often came at a small cost to the flavor of the tomato. Every small loss added up over decades to result in a fruit that doesn’t live up to expectations.

“Imagine a symphony. If one violin leaves it’s no big deal, but when more and more leave, slowly the music changes. That’s what happened to modern tomatoes over the past 50 years,” Klee said. “We lost a sugar here, a volatile there. Selecting for larger tomatoes means less sugar, less flavor. There’s more sugar in smaller fruit.”

Klee has an interdisciplinary team working on identifying the flavors consumers like, then working backwards to breed those genes back into the tomato. There’s a psychology of flavor, taste, and smell, but also biology as well.

According to the Center for Smell and Taste at the University of Florida (cst.ufl.edu/taste-vs-flavor-whats-the-difference.html) taste happens mostly on the tongue but also other areas with taste buds, such as the soft palate. While taste is a major component of flavor, aroma also plays a role.  Aroma from volatile chemicals in tomatoes is one area Klee is focusing on.

“What happens in the mouth when you chew the tomato, it releases volatile chemicals that go up into your olfactory senses. Taste in the mouth is sweet, sour, salty, while flavor is from the volatile chemicals in the fruit. Volatiles are essential to good flavor. Test it yourself – take a tomato and hold your nose so you can’t smell it when you eat it,” said Klee.

Crossing heirloom tomatoes with the modern elite varieties, Klee has developed several with great flavor. Making them available to the home gardener, he’s released them through Proven Winners as Garden Gem and Garden Treasure. Try them next year to see if you agree that they’re vigorous, disease resistant, and are flavorful.

In the meantime, if you’ve got a hankering for great tomatoes, head out to the Taste of Tomato in Boulder. Sponsored by Harlequin’s Gardens and Growing Gardens of Boulder County, the Taste of Tomato is an opportunity to sample the love apple in its many forms - stripes, color, shape, and size.

Scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 7, 10 am to 1 p.m. at Growing Gardens’ barn, 1630 Hawthorne Ave. in Boulder, the Taste of Tomato is where gardeners can bring their tomatoes for others to try and sample the products others are growing. Each year, tomato enthusiasts gather to taste 65 to 100 varieties and vote on the tastiest of the lot. 

Entry is free if you bring three or more medium to large tomatoes or 10 cherry tomatoes of one kind, with the variety name on a card, to donate to the tasting. All entries must be home-grown. If you have no tomatoes to bring, there will be a $5 entrance fee. 

For more information on the Taste of Tomato, visit harlequinsgardens.com.