Building a Better Tomato

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

Have you ever complained that the supermarket tomato you just bit into tastes like nothing? Larry Meiller talks with a scientist working to get tomatoes back to their original, delicious goodness.

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  • Scientists Working To Build Perfect Tomato

    Have you ever had a really great-tasting tomato? Chances are that if you’ve been lucky enough to bite into one, it was from a home garden or maybe a local farmers’ market. Supermarket tomatoes have long been bred to travel well over thousands of miles — though some suggest taste is the main casualty.

    Dr. Harry Klee said he’s hoping to change that. Klee, a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department in the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program at the University of Florida, is examining ways to make the perfect tomato.

    Klee said his decision to focus on tomatoes comes down to the strong feelings have about them.

    “Honestly, people are passionate about tomatoes,” Klee says. “It’s really fun. When you tell them that you work on a tomato, and you’re working on flavor, I mean you can just talk for hours with somebody after you tell them that!”

    But what is the science behind taste? Klee said that “taste is the integration of multiple senses in your brain.” He said it’s a unique combination volatile compounds, which people are experiencing that help humans recognize and enjoy a tomato, or any other food.

    Klee said that the challenge of easily producing delicious tomatoes is a problem we only have ourselves to blame. One of the issues is that as Americans, we’ve come to expect that we can eat any produce at any time of the year. So, growers are catering to the market by not just growing crops in their usual seasons. That means different varieties have been developed that will grow under many different conditions.

    “Most people, if in January in Madison (and) you want a tomato, you expect to go to your supermarket and find one,” Klee said. “And so the industry has developed, for better or for worst — it’s kind of a Faustian bargain here, we get what we asked for. Compromises have to be made. Those things have to be shipped from Florida or Mexico in January on a truck and to get up to Madison.”

    Klee said he thinks that the key to a return to better-tasting tomatoes is in the many heirloom varieties that have been preserved.

    “We’ve grown hundreds of varieties of them, I think,” he said. “And what we do, in principle, is very simple. We grow them up, we give them to a large consumer panel, and those people rate the quality of that tomato, and then we grind them up and figure out what’s in them in terms of chemical constituents. And so when we do enough of those, we can just use really simple statistical programs to say what’s in the good tomato, what’s in the bad tomato, and how much of it.”

Episode Credits

  • Prof Harry Klee Guest