Freshly harvested tomatoes

Why aren’t supermarket tomatoes that tasty?

Bring up the taste of the tomatoes you buy from a supermarket in polite society and the response is universal; a wrinkle of the nose, a sad shake of the head, and the murmured regret that these potentially delicious fruits have no taste anymore. That is, of course, unless you frequent a farmer’s market, an organic producer or grow your own tomatoes. Now however, there may have been a breakthrough in commercial tomato production that will improve taste significantly, and it all comes down to the commercial tomato process.

To prevent tomatoes from becoming too ripe before they reach the store of destination, which could be many hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away, growers pick them when they are still green. Packers then use a gas called ethylene to initiate ripening and then the tomatoes are stored and shipped at low temperatures. The problem is that chilling tomatoes degrades their flavour, so quite apart from any nutritional deficiencies, tomatoes produced in this way are also the lacklustre palate experiences that many people complain about.

Now however, there may have been a breakthrough in commercial tomato production that will improve taste significantly, and it all comes down to the commercial tomato process.

What some researchers have done however, is add a hot water pre-treatment phase to the process which they claim improves the taste significantly.

The heat process involves dipping green tomatoes in water that was heated to 52 degrees Celsius and let them cool at room temperature. Then they chill the tomatoes to 5 to 12 degrees Celsius which are the temperatures used for commercial shipping. After the tomatoes had fully ripened they tested them for flavour and aroma.

Tomatoes subjected to the heat process had higher levels of flavour compounds (6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one, 2-methylbutanal, and 2-phenylethanol) than non-heated fruit and they also subjectively tasted better.

According to the researchers chilling tomatoes suppresses production of oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur-containing substances, ketones, alcohols, and aldehydes. Included in those substances are 13 aroma components of tomato flavour but hot water actually increased levels of these ingredients.

The researchers say this is an easy and inexpensive answer to the flavour problem of commercial tomatoes. Of course another solution to the tomato flavour problem is to grow your own, buy from the farm-gate, or frequent farmer’s markets where local growers can share their produce. It’s revolutionary, but instead of tinkering with the commercial process why not either totally change it, or just bypass it.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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