Question of Taste
do the tomatoes that you buy in the supermarket
taste so bland?
I was a country boy.
I grew up on an Ohio farm, and one of the few things I miss about
Ohio is being able to go out into the garden during the summer,
pick a ripe sun-warmed tomato off the vine, brush it off, and eat
it right on the spot. The flavor is indescribable. But if you are
like most people, you have very little idea of what I mean.
is not because you are unacquainted with tomatoes. Although the
tomato ranks sixteenth in relative nutritional content for a group
of vitamins and minerals (well behind such stalwarts as broccoli,
spinach, and brussels sprouts, which are the top three), we Americans
eat so many of them that it is the number one source of nutrients
in our diet. Statistically speaking, each of us consumes about sixty-five
pounds of tomatoes and tomato products per year.
consumption has increased since the end of World War II. In the
1930's, American farmers grew approximately one million pounds of
tomatoes annually. By 1987, that figure had ballooned to 76,020
million pounds. Due partly to the increase in fast food outlets,
nearly one half of our total tomato consumption is in the form of
ketchup and chili sauce. Fresh tomato consumption has actually decreased
slightly. But when I look at the tomatoes in the supermarket, I
wonder why we bother eating them at all. The taste of these fresh
tomatoes bears little resemblance to my childhood memories.
why, let's first look at what makes a ripe tomato.
about forty to sixty days from the time the tomato flower is fertilized
until the fruit reaches full maturity. It attains its full size
in about half that time, having accumulated starch all the while.
Since the fruit is still grass green, growers call this the "mature
green" stage. As the days go by, the green chlorophyll in the fruit
is degraded and eventually destroyed as the final yellow or red
pigmentation increases. The fruit, now called a "breaker," has a
mottled or streaked appearance. As the tomato ripens to its full
color, its acidity decreases, essential oils and other components
of its flavor develop, the starch becomes sugar, and the fruit softens.
of sunlight the tomato plant receives during the growth and ripening
of the fruit is a critical factor in how a tomato both looks and
tastes. This is why tomatoes grown in San Francisco, which is often
overcast during the summer, usually taste bland, if they ripen at
all. Special varieties bred for shade tolerance have been produced,
but have had only moderate success.
a fully ripened tomato is picked, its flavor deteriorates quickly.
There are more than four hundred compounds, aromatic as well as
flavorful, in the fruit. They all act in concert to let you know
you are eating a tomato rather than a turnip. After the fruit is
picked, these compounds rapidly deteriorate. Just two hours off
the vine, a tomato has lost some of the factors that make it taste
so good. The flavor also suffers if a ripe tomato is kept for more
than a few hours in a refrigerator.
So that's why they taste so bad nowadays!" you say. "Tomatoes are
picked long before I see them in the supermarket, and have probably
been refrigerated as well." Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
tomato has been molded by the "green revolution," which began in
the 1950's. Selective breeding, improved cultivation methods (including
the use of pesticides), and mechanization let less than ten percent
of the population of the United States feed everyone else, with
enough food left over to export abroad.
the number of farmers has decreased, the size of the farm has increased.
In 1890, the average farm size was 136 acres. By 1930, it had grown
slightly to 156 acres. Today the figure is closer to 500 acres.
Farming has, for the most part, ceased to be a vocation, and has
become an industry, with a number of large agri-business corporations
participating. Giants such as Dow, Sohio, Ciba-Geigy and Monsanto
not only supply pesticides, seeds, machinery and the other raw materials
farmers need, but are also major sources of research funding. This
research includes development of new tomato varieties that are both
more resistant to herbicides (which these companies also happen
to sell) and better suited to mechanized harvesting.
tomato plant tends to sprawl over a fairly wide area and is relatively
easy to break or damage. Also, the fruit does not all ripen at once:
the same plant can have ripe tomatoes, green tomatoes and new flowers,
all at the same time. Harvesting machinery would damage the delicate
vines. And obviously, only the ripe fruit should be picked. Building
a machine to fit the tomato was not a practical solution. Growers
found it much easier to engineer the tomato to fit the requirements
of the machine.
of tomatoes bred specifically for mechanical picking have a more
compact plant and fruit which ripens more or less all at the same
time. The mechanical picker uproots the plant and destroys it as
it gathers in the fruit, so the tomato also has a tougher skin to
withstand this rough treatment.
growers were improving certain tomato characteristics, the flavor
tended to get lost in the shuffle. But these re-engineered varieties
are overwhelmingly used for processing. Only about one percent of
the tomatoes destined for the fresh market are picked mechanically.
have heard rumors of tomatoes that can withstand a drop of six feet
without damage or those that will not ripen even on the vine unless
they are specifically treated. Although generally true, these tales
have nothing to do with the fresh tomatoes on your grocer's shelves.
requirements, not harvesting needs, have had a greater impact on
the taste of the fresh tomato. Prior to World War II, major metropolitan
areas were ringed with numerous local producers who brought small
quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables a short distance into
town for sale. Economic pressures among them the increased demand
for housing have pushed farmers further away from the cities.
farmers face is getting their product (the tomato) to the consumer
(you). When a farmer deals with small quantities transported over
small distances, it's no big problem. But shipping a ton of ripe
tomatoes is another thing. They squish. They spoil. They're likely
to arrive better suited for throwing than eating. But the vast majority
of tomatoes sold in the United States are grown in either California
or Florida and shipped to the rest of the country. Tomatoes from
California arrive in East Coast markets in five to six days; tomatoes
from Florida arrive in three.
do shippers manage it? The answer and one of the prime reasons
for the loss of flaovr for the tomato was discovered in the 1930's.
Ethylene gas, a normal by-product of fruit development, was shown
to be a trigger that prompted the ripening process. Many fruits,
tomatoes included, could be picked while still green (and much more
resistant to damage during transport), brought to market, and ripened
using ethylene while in storage.
green tomatoes can be kept in storage at around 10 degrees Celsius
(50 degrees Fahrenheit) for about three weeks. Or they can be stored
in special holding rooms which have a low-oxygen atmosphere for
up to ten weeks without spoilage or further ripening. At any time
within this period, the tomatoes can be treated with ethylene gas
and be ready to hit your grocer's shelves in about two to three
weeks. A fully ripe tomato could be stored under similar conditions
for only about one week.
a catch: (Isn't there always?) Ethylene acts as a catalyst in initiating
the sequence of events in the ripening process, but many of the
flavor components I mentioned earlier need the plant's continuing
contributions to fully develop. Removed from the plant while still
green, immature fruit treated with ethylene colors up very nicely
and looks beautiful, but falls short of its optimum quality.
on the use of ethylene obscured another reason for tasteless tomatoes.
This is your desire to have ripe, luscious tomatoes year-round
not only in July, but also in January. Like most fruits and vegetables,
the tomato is seasonal. California tomatoes are in season from mid-April
to December, but the demand for tomatoes is year-round. It is a
safe bet that the tomato you sliced for your salad in February came
all the way from Mexico or out of storage. If you were not so eager
to buy tomatoes, the techniques to deliver them to you would not
have been developed.
have bought some tomatoes in wintertime that were horribly expensive,
looked wonderful, but were watery when cut and had little taste.
These tomatoes came from greenhouses where they were hydroponically
grown in special non-nutritive material, getting all their nutrients
in liquid form. Because of the costs involved, this method of production
is not used to any extent here in the United States, but is more
prevalent in Europe, where weather conditions make for an otherwise
short growing season. To some extent, this wateriness is also true
of tomatoes which are heavily irrigated, since the water is stored
in the flesh in anticipation of a dry spell that never comes.
hope for tasty tomatoes in the future? Well, genetic engineering
techniques have brought tomatoes with softer skins which the makers
claim retain their flavor. And to be fair, modern techniques have
their advantages. Compared to the general store of fifty years ago,
the modern supermarket offers an enormous variety of produce. And,
relative to earning power, we don't have to pay as much for these
fruits and vegetables. But it may well be that, unless I start growing
my own tomatoes, and eating them immediately after I pick them,
my memories of the taste of a tomato will remain only memories.