Tomatoes, Flavor, Health, Agriculture and Hope

October 30, 2012 in Foodland, Health Claims, Mediterranean, Nutrition, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

I spent most of my ‘growing up’ years in California, where tomatoes enjoy a long growing season. That was a lucky thing for me, as eating vine fresh tomatoes, was one of the wonderful pleasures of the table.  In my memory, it definitely lived up to its old-time name, the love apple. Not being really young any more brings both benefits and losses. One of the benefits is having a longer horizon of memories; but this can provide a loss too. Observing over the years the loss of the flavor of a red ripe tomato, in favor of a redder color and greater transportability, is a bitter pill for me to swallow. Yes, I remember that I’ve already written about the sad story of tomatoes and have even referred back to it in some of my later articles. A small sample of my tomato-writing history:

Why should we care so much about tomatoes? We, as Americans, and also many other cultures on earth, traditionally rely on tomatoes as a dependable source of numerous nutrients. I won’t fall into the chasm of nutritionism by choosing one or two of those hundreds of nutrients provided by an ordinary tomato. But suffice it to say, tomatoes are an important contributor to healthy, whole-food nutrients so needed in America. The texture and appearance, if not the flavor, of whole sliced tomatoes is one of the hold-outs of a real, whole plant-based food among the processed and simulated fakes served up by the food processing industry.

Today I want to share a story of hope with you; yes, hope for the future of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. A couple of weeks ago an article in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention; They Say Tomato. We Say Tasteless. Agribusinesses know tomatoes are bland. And they're trying to do something about it; an article written by Ian Berry. It’s a concise article telling how tomato breeders have focused on making tomatoes that are durable, attractive and available year-round. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending upon your perspective, the growers have heard the complaints about the uniformly red but tasteless tomatoes that are stocking the grocery vegetable bins. To the human taste buds, successful breeding for long shelf life, high yield, and durability, has proved to be a big disappointment to our taste buds, uniform shape and redness notwithstanding. And it seems like almost everything now days, it’s a complicated problem to solve to get tomatoes back to the tasty love apple experience. Berry does a great job explaining how involved returning industrial tomatoes back to their origins as the flavorful fruit is going to be. Of course, most tomatoes are going to stay industrialized, so it is unacceptable to give up some of the benefits of the breeding that has produced our current standardized tomato.

One evidence of the flavor problem is the seed business. Berry reports that tomatoes are the biggest seller in the $5 billion vegetable-seed market, accounting for about a quarter of sales. There are a lot of us who have discovered that we can enjoy tasty tomatoes by planting them in our own yards or going to a famer’s market. We have learned that imperfectly shaped and variously colored tomatoes can be a real taste treat. So we don’t demand a perfectly red, symmetrically shaped piece of fruit, but we do enjoy biting into a flavorful, fleshy tomato.

I’m grateful to Berry for bringing the message of hope. We tomato lovers just hope they can get this complex problem fixed soon.

In a second article on the same page as the tomato article, Ian Berry wrote: Taste + Health = ? A look at some new fruits and vegetables that have been bred for both the palate and the body. It’s an interesting focus showing how new fruits and vegetables are being bred to provide tasty and nutritious new options. If you’ve been coming to Dr. Grandma’s for a while, you know that we believe Good Health Can Be Yummy is important. If it doesn’t taste yummy, it’s pretty futile to include various food choices in the menu. Not many people will eat them. So I applaud agriculture for trying to include both yumminess and health in their goals.

P.S. Ian Berry’s two articles are included in an entire section called Innovation in Agriculture. There are four other articles that may be of interest to you, if you, like me want to have increased hope for the future of our now thoroughly industrialized foods.