Sometimes we all like to reminisce longingly about the past. Granted, it’s not usually while eating a tomato, but according to science, maybe it should be – because according to new research, tomatoes are measurably worse today than they were just 50 years ago.
A new study published in the journal Science found that “Modern commercial tomato varieties are substantially less flavorful than heirloom varieties.” Though I’m sure any true gourmand could easily verify this fact by simply biting into a tomato picked up at a supermarket, the team of researchers, led by Harry Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, took a far more involved approach.
Step one: They sequenced the genome of 398 types of tomatoes from commercial versions to heirloom varieties to ancestral tomatoes. Step two: The researchers conducted consumer taste tests with 101 of those varieties to see which ones people liked. Step three: Using gas chromatography, they broke down the molecules within the tomatoes, and then figured out which compounds, known as “volatiles,” were associated with likeability in the taste tests. Then, finally, step four: The team went back to the genomes to see which genes were responsible for those volatiles. It was a simple process really—only took years.
Unsurprisingly, heirloom tomatoes had more of these likable volatiles than commercial varieties. But now, armed with this new info, these researchers believe that creating a decent commercial tomato could once again be within our reach. “Klee says that by crossbreeding commercial tomato crops with these heirloom varieties over multiple generations, growers could, step-by-step, produce a tomato that’s large, plump, red, and disease resistant—but that also tastes pretty good,” Science wrote, covering the study. Doing so would only take a few years, Klee suggested.
“We can easily push it back that 50 years and recapture a good deal of the flavor without compromising the modern tomato at all,” Klee said. “It’ll be much, much better than what’s out there today.” Yeah, sure, but then 50 years from now, we’d all be pining for the flavorless tomatoes of yore, and we’d be right back where we started.