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Bringing back a tastier tomato

Improving the taste of tomatoes
Scientists use natural breeding to improve tomato taste 03:52

The U.S. is the second-largest tomato grower in the world, producing around 32 billion pounds a year. But producing the fruit in such large numbers comes at a cost; the sweet taste you may remember from your grandmother’s garden has been lost.  

Now, researchers have found a way to put the flavor back into tomatoes.

Biologist Harry Klee, of the University of Florida in Gainesville, has been researching tomatoes and their disappearing flavor for more than two decades. 

Horticulturalists are working to pack more flavor into the fruit that’s grown flavorless over the years. CBS NEws

“All we’ve done between now and then was to add water to this fruit and make it bigger and bigger,” he told CBS News correspondent David Begnaud.

Over the years, tomato plants have been bred to be commercially viable, producing lots of disease-resistant, long-lasting fruit -- big and hardy, but not necessarily tasty.

“There are 30 or more compounds that give us flavor in tomato,” said Klee. “Think of it as a symphony, and think of what would happen if I start removing instruments one by one. You wouldn’t notice, then all of the sudden you get to a point where you’ve removed 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and all of sudden, ‘Whoa, that doesn’t sound the same!’”

To identify exactly what determines flavor, Klee and a team of scientists sequenced genomes of nearly 400 varieties of tomatoes. Then they matched up what flavors consumers like most with specific genes.

Now, Klee says they can breed tomatoes to please farmers and eaters, and it goes back to genetics.

“We say this one has great flavor, this one has high yield, let’s cross the two together and let’s pick out the babies that have the really high yield and the great flavor,” he told Begnaud.

Simon & Schuster

“We constantly tell everybody, eat more fruits and vegetables, but if we bred the flavor out of the food that we should be eating, it’s really not a surprise that people don’t want to eat them,” said Mark Schatzker, who wrote about food and flavor in “The Dorito Effect” (Simon & Schuster).

“The consumer plays a big role here. One of the things we need to do is tell supermarkets that we care about flavor and will pay a little bit more for it.”

And if Klee has his way, we’ll all be enjoying a sweeter, more flavorful fruit soon. “I think we will be able to create a tomato that tastes markedly better in the next two years, and hopefully we can have it in the supermarket in three,” he said.

The researchers are sensitive to concerns over GMO food, and say they are not genetically engineering tomatoes. They say they can grow the tastier tomatoes through a natural breeding process.

Klee hopes the method they’ve developed can be used to improve the taste of other foods, like blueberries and strawberries.

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