A farmers market in summer is a bit of sensory overload. A bounty of fresh veggies and fruits tickles our senses in all shapes and colors. One of the most colorful displays are the heirloom tomatoes that abound – green with yellow stripes, deep purple, bright orange – a feast for the eyes.
But there is another reason why heirloom tomatoes are in such high demand: their flavors. The sentence I hear the most at markets and from friends is like “regular tomatoes just don’t taste like anything anymore”.
Why are heirlooms different from the regular tomatoes you find in the supermarket? Well, I like to say it’s because they taste the way nature intended them to taste. Heirloom tomatoes – or any heirloom fruit or vegetables for that matter – are grown from seeds that have been passed down through generations of growers and gardeners, and while they were certainly selective about passing down the best tasting tomato varieties, they did not had to serve the mass-production and international logistics that dominates modern agriculture.
Nowadays, tomatoes – or any other vegetable and fruit, for that matter – are grown to be produced thousands of miles from the place of consumption. They have to ripen uniformily on a truck, after having picked green. They have to all have the same shape and size, so they can easily be packed into crates and shipped and displayed. Taste is NOT the reason of being for any of these tomatoes anymore.
Over the past years, several researchers have tried to identify the science behind the lost flavor in tomatoes, and it is a fascinating picture that I’d like to share with you today!
The tomato is composed of the what experts call the pericarp tissue (the flesh) and the locule spaces with fluids and seeds. Jack Rabin, Director of Farm Programs at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, has been working on reviving the Jersey tomato to its old glory, and suggests the three following hypotheses
Firmness vs. flavor –
An interesting thought that was presented by Al Stevens and Adel Kadar in 1977 is that the ratio of pericarp tissue and fluids/seeds is important for taste perception. They suggest that the sugars and the acid trapped inside the pericarp cells remain unavailable to taste. So while lab tests – in which a tomato gets blended up and then the puree put under a microscope – might suggest the tomatoes have the same flavor parameters, but we cannot taste them in the new varieties that have been “improved” for firmness (to facilitate shipping and storage), meaning they have much more pericarp tissue.
Low acid trend vs. flavor –
Acid is one of the three major flavor magnifiers, along with salt and heat/spice. There has been a trend in breeding less acid varieties all over the board of fruits and vegetables. Jack Rabin suggests that the loss of acid in the tomato inhibits us to experience that burst of fresh tomato flavor when we bite into one, hence lessening the flavor experience.
Color vs. flavor –
Another hypothesis is that plant breeders focused on selecting tomato varieties that developed color before they were ripe. A red tomato is what the consumer wants, so plant breeders rigorously selected for varieties that showed early color development. Jack Rabin’s theory is that it is possible that the color development on these varieties is premature, with the color being developed before the other characteristics of a ripe tomato are developed.
Color is also an important aspect in the finding from researchers at the University of California, Davis:
Uniform-ripening vs. sweetness –
Researchers here discovered that the green shoulders old varieties have were crucial for the sweetness of tomatoes. The darker green color shows the presence of chlorophyll, and that chlorophyll converts sunlight into sugar. Old heirloom tomato varieties have a gene that produces green shoulders, but when varieties were bred for uniform ripening, this gene was disabled, and with it some of the tomatoes’ sweetness.
Yield over quality –
According to Harry Klee, a plant biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, it’s the overall inbalance of the tomato plant that sacrifices flavor. With tomato plants breed for high yields, the plant is forced to put all its energies into producing tomatoes, but cannot produce sufficient sugar and nutrients for the fruit to actually develop the distinctive tomato flavor we all love.
Five good reasons to stop by the farmers market for some heirloom tomatoes – – and make sure to save those heirloom seeds! And of course hop over to our online store for a tasty selection of heirloom varieties preserved in pickles, hot sauces, relishes & preserves!