Heirloom tomatoes vs standard supermarket “red slicing” tomatoes
One has created a following based solely on it’s incredible flavor, the other has long been the benchmark of mediocre, tasteless, pithy but brightly colored tomatoes. Available 365 days a year, it’s only offering to the salad or sandwich is a bit of bright red. Why do these universally yucky tomatoes exist, and why do the supermarkets continue to sell such an obviously inferior product?
Consumer demand is the main reason, as most commercial growers state that they are only paid on weight, not flavor, of their tomatoes. This traces back to the tomato breeders, as they are responding to the grower’s inputs of what they need – a plant that will yield as much as possible over as long of time as possible. The fruits must withstand being harvested, packed, stored in a warehouse where they are turned orange with ethylene gas, then shipped by truck several states away and continue to look good a minimum of 7 – 10 days later when displayed on the grocery store shelves. If the grower has no financial incentive to produce flavor, they won’t.
Here’s a new wrinkle to the story. The growers are not completely at fault, it turns out. Recent research published in the journal Science isolates a gene mutation that is responsible for the almost artificially bright red, at the cost of flavor. This gene mutation was accidentally discovered by commercial tomato breeders and then bred into the majority of tomatoes used in supplying the food chain, especially in the off season. This is not a genetically modified organism (or GMO) as the gene mutation happened spontaneously, and not through mechanical gene manipulation.
This is truly a story of unintended consequences, as it clearly shows the unwanted results of focusing and breeding too closely on one desired characteristic while ignoring others. The color mutation also turns off the ripening sequence gene, which disables the tomatoes ability to manufacture sugar in the body of the fruit, explaining why the lack of flavor. Dr. Ann Powell, a lead author in the Science paper offered this solution to the flavor issue – heirloom tomatoes, as they do not have the genetic mutation!