We Can’t Always Get What We Want: The Flavor vs. Fresh Tomato Trade Off

by | Feb 8, 2024 | Blog

Tomatoes on the vineBuying fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter was never an option or even a consideration when growing up on a farm. You just knew fresh tomatoes were the best off the vine in the summertime and relied on home canned tomatoes (or store bought) for winter days. But over the years, global supply chains along with consumer demand, have changed the reality. Produce aisles are bursting with tomato options regardless of the season, but often not without complaints. So when a recent Ambrook Research article “Do You Know How Tomatoes Taste?” raised the question about taste, I was reminded we can’t always get what we want, and especially not without trade-offs.

We Have Tomatoes

In the Ambrook Research article, tomato horticulturists at the University of Florida state that “developing tomato varieties to fit the supply chain — means sturdier, more uniformly round and red fruits, grown on plants with higher yields and greater disease-resistance” and picked prior to full ripeness to tolerate transportation. Over the years, these efforts have been successful. We have tomatoes in our grocery stores at reasonable price. But as the horticulturists note, taste took a backseat when they started selecting for features that made tomatoes easier to grow and transport.

The Complexity of Flavor

Horticulturists in the tomato breeding area are not immune to the taste issue. But the question, according to the article, is “how to keep the tomatoes visually appealing and commercially viable while restoring some of flavor typical of many heirloom varieties”?

Taste is essentially comprised of three things — sugar, acids and aromatic volatiles. Even when genetics can be selected to improve the tomato flavor, growing conditions will make a significant difference.

There is a scientific reason why we think summer grown tomatoes taste better. As the researchers mention in the article, “tomatoes grown during longer, sunnier days will generally photosynthesize more sugars and acids, helping to boost their flavor.” Also, it is noted that tomatoes grown with less water produce smaller fruits, which concentrates the sugars and acids, making the tomato sweeter. Finally, different climates produce different results even if the same variety is grown. The realities of Mother Nature can’t be controlled unless they’re grown in a controlled environment.

Regardless of the genetics to improve taste, the flavor still may not be reflected in the tomato if shipped from a commercial grower. Many times, tomatoes are picked at the end of their “green with pinkish tinge” stage to ensure they will arrive in good condition. Even though the tomatoes are sprayed with ethylene (a natural occurring plant hormone) to ensure they ripen on time, the taste is not quite the same.

There Are Options

The tomato flavor dilemma is not a “no win.” There are options. The growth of regional greenhouses and specialty crop (produce) farmers can be an answer to the flavor issue as fewer miles traveled from field to grocery stores allows the fruit to ripen on the vine. Likewise, there are a wider variety of tomatoes (can you say “Flavor Bombs”?) that are available in grocery stores, reflecting better taste thanks to improved genetics and growing systems.

Man and woman shopping for tomatoesAnd lastly, the answer may be in your own backyard or farmer’s market! The basic fact is that homegrown seasonally grown tomatoes are almost always ripened on the vine, which adds to their flavor appeal.

Yet, as the article mentioned, perhaps our quest for the optimal tomato taste extends beyond the genetics. It may be more about memories of growing tomatoes as a kid with our family or eating a fresh tomato grown by our aunt or grandfather right out of the garden.

So, now’s the time to create those flavor memories! Look for those seed catalogues or visit a garden center for tomato plants in the coming months. Or better yet, take advantage of seasonal farmers’ markets wherever you are.

Fresh and flavor do not have to be a trade-off. This year, you just may be able to get that perfect tomato flavor!

Note: Content shared from the Ambrook Research weekly newsletter, a food and farming newsletter than looks at issues through a different lens. Subscribe at https://ambrook.com/research/newsletter.