Red tomatoes Red tomatoes Store-bought tomatoes may look pretty, but they don't always taste pretty. (Photo: Olga Miltsova/Shutterstock)

Why tomatoes have lost their flavor – and how to get it back

Scientists decided to find out why supermarket tomatoes have become tasteless. And now they want to fix it.

Believe it or not, there was a time when tomatoes actually tasted like the fruit they claimed to be. They were sweet; a far cry from the tasteless, bland product we often find in grocery stores today.

That's because modern tomatoes have been bred for their looks, not their taste. Unless you grow them yourself or pick them from the wild, the tomatoes you're likely to buy are, though they probably look plump and appetizing, actually quite lacking in flavor.

To understand why this is happening, scientists used genetics to find which chemicals are associated with flavor in almost 400 tomato varieties. From there, they found a clear answer: modern commercial breeds contain significantly lower amounts of many of these important flavor chemicals than heirloom and wild varieties.

The Tomaccio tomato was developed by laboratories in Israel, the result of cross-breeding with the Peruvian tomato species to create a sweet, snackable tomato with a longer shelf life.The Tomaccio tomato was developed by laboratories in Israel, the result of cross-breeding with the Peruvian tomato species to create a sweet, snackable tomato with a longer shelf life. (Photo: Tom Wang/Shutterstock)

Their research, published in the January edition of Science magazine, was the product of a collaboration of more than 20 scientists – including Antonio Jose Monforte of the Spanish National Research Council, Matias Kirst and Denise Tieman of the University of Florida, and Dani Zamir of Hebrew University in Israel. In it, they reported that growers can use a specific genetic "roadmap" to breed tastiness back into their tomatoes.

"We're just fixing what has been damaged over the last half century to push them back to where they were a century ago, taste-wise," Harry Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

While it will take years to see the effects of the study on mass production, Klee was encouraged that the "roadmap" his team identified was relatively simple to replicate, because it's based on traditional growing methods.

“We can make the supermarket tomato taste noticeably better," he said.

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