#TBT: Today we look back to when small and sweet tomatoes became large, sturdy and bland.
How the Tomato Lost Its Taste
Our story begins close to 90 years ago. Although we are not sure where, we do know that a tomato grower noticed that one of her (his?) tomato plants ripened evenly. Lacking the green shoulders of most tomatoes, it was firm, red, and round.
The new tomato was named and released in 1930 by the Fargo, North Dakota agricultural experiment station. Called the All Red, it soon became a grower’s dream and a consumer staple. Bred for firmness, size, disease resistance, and color, after World War II, the All Red dominated commercial tomato farming.
The only problem was taste. By eliminating the fruit’s green shoulders, farmers had also cut the sugar content that came from the plant’s chloroplasts.
A German Pink heirloom tomato with green shoulders (that small farms grow):
Supermarket tomatoes (no green shoulders):
The good news is that scientists have been working on the tomato genome. Their goal is to identify the tomato’s taste genes and, for now, use breeding (rather than genetic modification) to make them sweeter. Perhaps surprisingly, they’ve concluded that our nose might be more important than our taste buds. Tomato varieties like the matina that have more “volatiles” (chemical compounds) that affect what we smell actually taste sweeter.
Our Bottom Line: Supply and Demand
As economists, All Red tomatoes take us to supply and demand.
On the supply side, the All Red was more resilient, easier to ship and lasted longer. On the demand size, supermarket shoppers liked its size and even color. That means we have an increase in supply and demand:
Except for the taste, we had the perfect commercial tomato.
And that is why, on this Throwback Thursday, we look back at tasty tomatoes and look forward to their return.
My sources and more: From NPR to Business Insider, the popular media have been focusing on the tomato taste problem. But for the real story, these LiveScience and Science articles tell all.
LiveScience was also the source of our featured image and Science, the supermarket photo. After publication, this post was slightly edited to improve its clarity.