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Bring back the tasty tomatoes

A new study in the journal Science reveals that when growers began breeding tomatoes for color, they were unwittingly breeding against flavor.

July 05, 2012

When chicken farmers switched from using mostly corn feed to other grains, the chickens changed too. Their skin was white instead of yellow. For a while, poultry producers added color to the feed to make the chickens look the way they used to, but when skinless chicken breasts became a popular diet food, customers got used to the sight of white chicken and producers dropped the coloring.

Food shoppers are finicky about the colors of their food, and the agriculture industry races to anticipate their desires. But sometimes the industry moves too fast. One example: tomatoes imbued with the deepest red color but, as a result, little flavor.

For a long time, many shoppers assumed that their tomatoes had less taste because they were grown for higher yield instead of higher quality, or because they were picked while still green to better survive shipping. But then stores started selling vine-ripened tomatoes, including scarlet-hued fruits still clinging quaintly to their vines. It made no difference; they still didn't have much taste. Even growers didn't fully understand what had gone wrong — until creative scientific minds unearthed the genetic cause.

A new study in the journal Science reveals that when growers began breeding tomatoes for color, they were unwittingly breeding against flavor. A naturally occurring mutation in tomato plants produced uniformly red fruit when ripe, unlike tomatoes that ripened with marks of green or other colors around the stem. By breeding for that mutation, farmers were producing more visually appealing fruit, unaware that the mutation disabled another gene that prompted the fruit to develop sugar. That's why shoppers have, in the last several years, been willing to shell out major money for deformed-looking heirloom tomatoes that come in funny colors. They taste good.

The tomato, which originated in the Americas and turned up in spaghetti sauce only as a result of early European exploration, represents one of the misadventures of the agricultural industry, which is always looking for products that will lower costs, raise yields, survive severe weather or shipping and still look pretty at the end of the day. Those are understandable — even worthwhile — goals, but farmers might be misreading what consumers most need and desire from their food: abundant nutrition, of course, and deliciousness. We got used to white chickens. We can embrace green-topped tomatoes too.

So dear agriculture industry: We'd like our old tomatoes back. And while you're at it, please dump the peaches that, for all their rosy blush, are as hard as rocks and ripen into uncertain-tasting mush.

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