Why Can't I Get a Good Tomato?

By Terry Dunkle, DietPower Editor-in-Chief

To a tomato packer, these babies are ready to pick.

Biting into a ripe tomato used to be a great summer pleasures. But finding that kind of tomato seems impossible these days. No supermarket variety tastes like the ones my grandma grew. Hers weren't pink and crunchy.

I'm not alone in this. "I haven't had a good tomato since 1977," swears one of my co-workers. "I'm pretty p***ed off about it, too."

People are more passionate about the flavor of tomatoes than any other fruit or vegetable, says Jay Scott, a professor of horticulture at the University of Florida. "They don't talk much about the taste of a cucumber or a pepper, but they're always asking me about tomatoes."

Scott is one of six experts we phoned to ask why tomatoes are so lousy these days—and all six disagreed. But we found one bright ray in this gloomy situation. Read on.

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"It's the Picking"

Most tomatoes come from Florida, California, or Mexico. They are picked when they're "mature green"—just starting to change color, but still firm. (Why the rush? "It's one thing to grow a tomato in your back yard; it's another to grow a commercial product that has to be shipped thousands of miles," Scott told us.)

After picking, the tomatoes are stacked on pallets in a large room, and for the next three days, ethylene—a colorless, flammable gas (C2H4) derived from petroleum—is piped in. (Insiders like to say the tomatoes are "sprayed," not gassed. "Otherwise, it sounds like Auschwitz," explained one.) The ethylene triggers the creation of enzymes, which break down cell walls and turn starches into sugar. The tomatoes begin softening and turning red.

Picking tomatoes green and ripening them artificially is what makes them taste bad, according to Brett Clement, managing editor of Tomato Magazine. The longer a tomato stays on the vine, the higher its sugar levels and the better it tastes. But "tomatoes that are too ripe present difficulties for the food-service industry," Clement told us. "Slice into them and all the seeds and juice fall out."

(Excuse me, but that savory mess is precisely one of the things I miss!)

"It's the Tomato"

We also talked to David E. Smith, a tomato researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Horticultural Crops Quality Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. He said gassing is not what make tomatoes taste bad. Ethylene, he explained, is a natural hormone, produced by the plant itself, that fosters the ripe fruit's sugar, flavor, and aroma. Gassing a load of tomatoes doesn't compromise their taste, he said—it simply helps them all ripen at the same time.

Download DietPower free trialAccording to Smith, what generates those "tomato-like pink things you find at the salad bar" is just the grower's choice of "cultivar"—the breed of tomato. Some cultivars that are picked green and treated with ethylene taste "absolutely wonderful," he insisted. But growers often choose cultivars based on soil and weather conditions, disease resistance, year-round availability, and profitability.

It's hard to breed just for flavor anyway, said Scott of Florida. A tomato's flavor depends partly on its ratio of sugar to acid, and people disagree on the best ratio. Moreover, "Nobody is paying for flavor," Scott said. "People who buy tomatoes pay for volume with no 'shrinkage'—food must be sound and not rot."

("He's talking about grocers, not consumers," replies another co-worker. "Consumers wilI gladly pay for flavor.")

"It's the Handling"

Next, we tried Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion for the Florida Tomato Committee. She said a tomato's taste has everything to do with handling. "Cold will absolutely kill the flavor," she noted. "A tomato produces a flavor enzyme as it ripens. As soon as the temperature goes below 55 degrees, the enzyme stops producing flavor—permanently." Nevertheless, tomatoes are often shipped with lettuce at its preferred temperature of 37 degrees.

Before you start yelling about stupid shippers, consider another discovery made by Winters' researchers: 77 percent of consumers take their tomatoes home and plop them in the refrigerator, where the temperature is only about 40.

Download DietPower free trial(Actually, said our sources, any tomato—even a green one—will continue to ripen after you get it home if you keep it at room temperature. Just set it on your kitchen counter with the stem side up and wait a few days until it reddens. If you're impatient, put the tomato in a paper bag, which traps ethylene close to the fruit and helps it ripen faster.)

"It's You"

We also spoke with Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Commission. Another problem, he said, is that people's tastes differ with locale, personal experience, and ethnicity. Southwesterners, for example, like acidic tomatoes, while people who grow their own tomatoes lean towards the sweeter varieties. Hispanics, meanwhile, tend to prefer pink, firm tomatoes.

So many varieties of tomatoes are available now, said Beckman, that "if you don't like the kind you bought this week, try again in a couple of weeks. I can guarantee it will be a different type of tomato. In California, we grow different tomatoes in June than we do in July and August, and we keep changing the kind."

You may have even more choices in the future, says Tomato Magazine's Clement. Greenhouse tomatoes are becoming more popular—they're 25 percent of the U.S. fresh-tomato market, versus 5 or 6 percent a few years ago. (In Europe, they're 90 percent.) Greenhouse tomatoes taste better because "a greenhouse has more quality control and the tomato is harvested closer to full ripeness," said Gene Giacomelli, a horticulturalist at the University of Arizona.

Download DietPower free trialNo matter how many varieties you try, however, you might never find that perfect tomato from your youth, says Winters. "You can't compete with a memory. For some people, the tomatoes they ate as children will always taste better. And people who've grown their own tomatoes as a hobby are emotionally committed to them. Even the best tomato of today doesn't stand a chance against those."

Sorry, Ms. Winters, but my coworkers and I disagree. In recent years, the tiny grape tomato has become a hit with consumers, even though it costs more than old-fashioned slicing tomatoes. (According to a Washington Post article, a picker can harvest 200 buckets of slicing tomatoes per day, versus only 25 buckets of grape tomatoes.) My local produce man can hardly keep grape tomatoes on the shelves. The reason is simple: they taste almost exactly like Grandma's.

We believe the perfect slicing tomato is already out there, just waiting for clever shipping and marketing. Maybe grape tomatoes are the first step.

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