Why Do Most Tomatoes Taste Like Cardboard?

By Amir Khan on June 29, 2012 11:11 AM EDT

Tomato
Ever wonder why a homegrown tomato tastes so much better than a store bought one? It turns out the answer is in the genes. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Ever wonder why a homegrown tomato tastes so much better than a store bought one? It turns out the answer is in the genes, and scientists think the finding will help stores stock better tasting and longer lasting tomatoes, they said in a new study, published in the journal Science on Thursday.

Researchers found a genetic switch that is responsible for some of the sugar production within the tomato. However, the cultivar used for supermarket tomatoes was bred for hardiness so it could withstand the long drive to the store. This mutation inadvertently turned off the sugar production switch, making the tomato bland.

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"When you have fruit or berries and you sprinkle sugar on top to accentuate the flavors, you can see how every little bit helps," Ann Powell, a biochemist at the University of California, Davis, told MSNBC. "Our sensitivity to sweetness makes a gene for sugar production extra-important. By knowing which gene it is, breeders can now select for varieties when plants are young."

They found that a protein called GLK, which helps regulates photosynthesis in the plants, also helps create sugar in the fruit. However, supermarket tomatoes contain either less or no GLK proteins, meaning the tomatoes taste bland.

Researchers tested over 25 commercial tomato varieties from around the world and found that they all contained the mutation that left them with an absence of the GLK protein.

"The mutation they describe in their paper is in literally 100 percent of modern breeds sold in grocery stores today," Harry Klee, a molecular geneticist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who studies the chemistry and genetics of flavor in fruits and vegetables, told MSNBC. "It's a really good illustration of some of the problems with modern breeding of tomatoes."

Ultimately, researchers hope the findings will lead to a better tasting tomato. In the meantime, researchers said growing tomatoes yourself or looking for heirloom varieties is the best way to ensure a good tasting fruit.

"When you focus on one thing and neglect the other - the other being flavor - you can have some really bad unintended consequences," Klee said. "The consumer is going to have to realize that their tomatoes may not look perfect. There may be a patch of green around the top of the fruit. But to me, I would say, if I see that a fruit is not perfectly red and perfectly uniformly ripened, maybe it's going to taste better."

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