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Science

What makes tomatoes tasty?

An international team of researchers managed to single out the genes responsible for flavor in the fruit and have now published their results. The goal: make tomatoes so delicious that more people will want to eat them.

There's something wrong with today's tomatoes. Haven't you realized? Maybe that's because you have nothing to compare them with. But 50 years ago, tomatoes used to taste better, mainly because they contained more sugar.

"Everybody loves to hate current tomatoes," Harry Klee, professor for horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, told DW. "We have identified about 30 chemicals that contribute to flavor in a tomato and in today's tomatoes, 13 of them are only present in a reduced form." 

Klee lead a team of researchers from the US, China, Israel and Spain, who published their results in the journal Science on Thursday. They are confident, however, that they can return tomatoes to their former glory.

Size matters

In terms of value, tomatoes are the number one crop of all fruit and vegetables in the world, Klee explained. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the United States produces the second largest number of tomatoes and are only topped by China.

Harry Klee, Professor für Horticulture (University of Florida. )

Klee: We figured out what was lost in the modern breeding cycle of tomatoes

The problem with today's tomato crops is that the fruit is too large. Growers are focusing on size, but as the international team of researchers has discovered, the bigger the tomato, the less sugar it has and the less intensive its aroma.

Growers assume that consumers like big fruit and vegetables. They also need to keep labor costs down and make a living with the goods they sell.

Bigger fruit are easier and faster to pick. And in the end, the grower profits from having as many tomatoes picked as possible, because they get paid by weight and don't usually receive a premium for truly tasty tomatoes.

The best of both worlds

"We have to rescue the best flavor genetics, but the growers won't touch it unless we do that without destroying the high yield and disease resistance that these guys rely upon to make money," Klee explained. "We're not going to make the perfect tomato, but we can make one that is much more flavorsome."

Klee and his colleagues are already hard at work. Knowing what genes they have to focus on, they are breeding tomatoes that fulfill all the important criteria. But it's a slow process to figure out the exact details - and the crops need time to grow.

Eventually, they aim for better tomatoes getting out from the lab into the real world.

"The ultimate intent is to teach all breeders how to do this," Klee said about the right breeding technique. "Our goal is to help everybody improve flavor. Tomato is a great food in terms of nutrition and we want people to eat more of them."

And as Klee well knows, encouraging people to eat healthy is a lot easier when what's good for you also tastes good.

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