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It's the Tomato That Thinks It's a Carrot

Agriculture: The new, orange-pigment varieties have up to 25 times more beta carotene.


Her cheeks were as orange as an orange, ripe tomato. Sounds odd, eh?

But thanks to the work of a plant geneticist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it's possible.

John R. Stommel of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., has developed three new processing-tomato varieties that contain about 10 to 25 times more beta carotene than typical tomatoes--hence, the orange pigment. Cherry and beefsteak types high in beta carotene will also be released for the fresh market, the agency said Thursday.

Beta carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A, essential in aiding vision, bone growth, tooth development and reproduction. Carrots, tomatoes and yellow vegetables are good sources.

Germ plasm (or reproductive cells) for the processing-tomato lines was released in April and is available upon request, Stommel said. Two of the varieties are adapted for growing conditions in California, the East and the Midwest; the third is not suited to California.

A major food producer in California is using material derived from the germ plasm to develop nutritionally enhanced products, the agency said.

The Golden State is the nation's leader in processing tomatoes, producing 94% of the nation's supply and about 40% of the world's.

The fruits, developed through traditional breeding from a beta-carotene-rich wild species, are described as "firm and crack-resistant." Tomatoes that split before harvest are susceptible to fruit rot, which can cause large losses for growers.

Stommel expects the orange color to take some getting used to. As things stand now, the industry puts a premium on the reddest tomatoes.

" 'Redder is better' is the dogma in the food industry," Stommel said.

Stommel declined to identify the producer, but he said the company is using the orange fruit to blend with red tomatoes for products such as sauces, pastes and juices. It is marketing an "orange" tomato juice in Asia, where, he said, customers have "not found the orange color to be objectionable."

Industry sources suggested that the likeliest candidates were Campbell Soup Co., in Sacramento; Hunt Foods Co., in Fullerton; and H.J. Heinz Co., in Stockton. Calls to Hunt and Heinz were not returned. Michael Kilpatric, a spokesman for Campbell in Camden, N.J., said, "We're constantly looking at new ways to improve our products," but he declined to comment on the orange tomatoes.

Nutritionally enhanced foods are a hot commodity these days. Last year, cereal makers went wild after getting permission from the Food and Drug Administration to make health claims. Some labels now claim that "soluble fiber from foods such as oat bran, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."

Processors using tomatoes high in beta carotene could trumpet that fact, offering an incentive to invest in planting the new varieties, Stommel said.

Just how beneficial such products might be is unclear. Stommel noted that the varieties "could be beneficial in developing countries where blindness is a problem."

The wild species used by Stommel is endemic to the Galapagos Islands and produces pea-size, orange fruit. His challenge was to develop varieties that were large enough to be "horticulturally acceptable." Stommel described the two types appropriate for California as having an "elongated, round" shape.

Jane Rissler, senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said she is not opposed to "nutritional food." However, she said, "I really would prefer to see people eating a balanced diet."

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