Think back to the last time you bought a fresh tomato at the grocery store and actually enjoyed it. Can't remember when that was? Neither can most Americans. In fact, sales of commercially grown fresh tomatoes at grocery stores have plummeted in recent years as consumers hit up farmer's markets or look for the much more flavorful hydroponic or greenhouse-grown varieties.
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Why is that? Tomato growers are paid by the pound, not for the quality of their fruits, so for decades, their focus has been on uniform, baseball-size fruits. But it's more than just weight they're concerned about, writes Barry Estabrook in his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012). Tomato growers want tomatoes that have "defined shoulders" and flat bottoms, a shape that makes them easier to fit in industrial sorters, and varieties that produce high yields, are disease resistant, and have a long shelf life. "Taste enters the equation, if it enters at all, only after all those conditions are met," Estabrook writes. On top of all that, tomatoes are often refrigerated on their long journey from farm to market, killing what little flavor they may still have had.
So it's little wonder that grocery store shelves are littered with bland, mealy fruits that may look a lot like tomatoes but bear little resemblance to the flavorful fruits you can get at farmer's markets and from backyard gardens.
But it turns out plant genetics are partly to blame, according to a study in the journal Science.
Normally, as heirloom or non-commercial varieties of tomatoes ripen, their shoulders (the part of the tomato near the stem) remain green, which indicates that the fruits still have a little while before they're fully ripe. People see that and don't buy the tomatoes, which tomato growers don't like.
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Seventy years ago, plant breeders tried to tackle that problem by developing a variety that turns red all at once, even if the fruit isn't completely ripe. But the researchers in the Science study—from the University of California Davis, Cornell University, and U.S. Department of Agriculture—discovered through a variety of experiments on weeds that introducing this "uniform-ripening" gene inadvertently disabled the gene that gives tomatoes their flavor.
Hence, decades of disgusting tomatoes.
There is good news out of all this: Now that scientists know what's causing the flavor loss, they can work to reverse some of the mistakes of the past and start breeding tomatoes with more flavor.
The trade-off? People will have to start getting used to higher tomato prices and to seeing fruits that still look a little green. But now that tomato season is in full swing, just stock up on truly fresh, non-industrial tomatoes that you can freeze, can, and preserve in other ways for the long winter ahead.