Kiichiro Sato  /  AP file
David Francis, professor of horticulture and crop science at Ohio State University, says that tomatoes may look uniform, "but as you dive down deeper you find they are quite different. One gene can make all the difference."
updated 3/25/2005 9:53:10 AM ET 2005-03-25T14:53:10

Research that has focused on making tomatoes disease resistant and easier to ship could also one day improve their taste and make them more nutritious, researchers say.

At Ohio State University, scientists are working with seeds from hundreds of tomato plants to learn more about how a tomato’s color can improve its nutritional value.

“Their appearance may be uniform, but as you dive down deeper you find they are quite different,” said David Francis, who breeds tomato seeds. “One gene can make all the difference.”

Jay Scott, a breeder at the University of Florida, has spent seven years studying how to improve flavor through taste tests and genetic analysis.

Scott said many factors influence taste, including the tomato’s balance of sugar and acid. He said producers first want a tomato that resists diseases and ships easily.

“I don’t think anybody’s against better flavor,” Scott said. “It’s a question of can they do that and provide everything else.”

Francis noted that breeding has created more diverse tomatoes, with most supermarkets today carrying grape, cherry, roma, beefsteak, cluster and hydroponic tomatoes.

The research also has made tomatoes that are less expensive to produce and purchase.

Advances include tomatoes that ripen after they’re picked, so they can survive on longer shipping routes; are firmer, to withstand bruising during shipment; and are more resistant to fungus and bacteria.

The biggest complaint about the modern tomato is lack of taste. Consumers say today’s varieties are not as juicy or sweet and they sometimes blame the breeders.

Taste tests show that some new varieties rate better than heirloom tomatoes despite a popular opinion that older is better, Scott said.

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“I’m not sure if the public has been dumbed down so much that they don’t know what tomatoes are supposed to taste like,” he said.

The different shapes, colors and sizes created by breeding are mainly designed to catch the eye of the shopper, a development that has come at a time when tomato consumption has risen steadily in the last four decades.

Americans eat about 92 pounds of tomatoes annually in everything from ketchup to pasta sauces and salsa, according to a 2000 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in 2000. The report attributed the climb to interest in Italian and Mexican food and awareness of the tomato’s health benefits.

Tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, which fights some types of cancers, including prostate cancer, and beta-carotene, or pro-vitamin A, which is important for the eyes.

Francis said not enough is known to say whether new varieties of tomato, such as the cherry tomato, are more or less nutritious.

One way to develop a more nutritious tomato would be to solve what causes the fleshy part of some tomatoes to turn yellow, researchers say.

Ohio State student researcher Audrey Darrigues hopes the wild tomatoes in the university’s greenhouse will provide a resistant gene that will ward off the color disorder.

“Color is a very important element in the tomato,” she said.

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