MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I bet you know this feeling: you bring home a box of perfect, plump, ruby-red strawberries from the supermarket, then you bite into one and you taste absolutely nothing. Close your eyes and you might not even know it's a strawberry at all. Why? Why?
We're hoping Marvin Pritts can help explain. He's a horticulture professor at Cornell University and a berry crop specialist. Professor Pritts, welcome to the program.
MARVIN PRITTS: Thank you. It's good to be here.
BLOCK: And how did this happen? The mass produced strawberry tastes nothing like a fresh strawberry that I might pick from a field. What has that strawberry been bred to do?
PRITTS: So over the last hundred or so years, people have been breeding strawberries for various important traits; size and yield - those are obvious ones, maybe color, disease and insect resistance, flavor. And as you select and try to improve one, oftentimes one of the others has to be sacrificed slightly to make progress.
So we've actually done work where we've taken strawberries from each the decades, for the last hundred years, and planted them in a common field and then evaluated them and see what has changed. And we've seen that size has increased. We've seen that yield has increased. We've seen that firmness has increased. But we've seen that sugar content and flavor has somewhat decreased.
BLOCK: You know, one thing I always wonder about, when I see those perfect strawberries in the supermarket, is the color. Is that actually sun-ripened redness just great from the field or is there something chemically-induced going on there?
PRITTS: There is nothing chemically-induced. But a strawberry that's not quite fully red will turn red even just sitting on the shelf. And that's why the color is sometimes deceiving - it doesn't necessarily mean that it's fully ripe and fully flavorful.
It's too bad that supermarkets don't let you sample before you buy, because that would really change the whole complexion of our supermarkets. So we have to make judgments based on what we see and it's not always reflective of how something tastes. If you could slice the strawberry in half, too, that could tell you a lot. Usually the better flavored strawberries are red through and through. A lot of the strawberries that aren't quite so flavorful are white - they're red on the outside but white on the inside.
BLOCK: One thing you mentioned earlier was size, that we like bigger strawberries. Why the focus on larger fruit? Why has that become so dominant, do you think?
PRITTS: I think for two reasons. One is Americans just naturally think bigger is better. Then the other factor, particularly with smaller size fruit like strawberries, is because of the labor situation being so expensive and difficult to obtain. It's a lot faster to pick a flat of strawberries when the strawberries are large, then it is when the strawberries are small. Large strawberries saves you a lot of money and labor.
BLOCK: Marvin Pritts, when you're buying a strawberry, what do you look for?
PRITTS: The first thing I do is look for where they are grown. If I have a choice I buy the strawberries that are grown closest to where I live, because I know that those are the ones that are probably going to be picked the closest to being fully ripe. Then I look for strawberries that have a nice shape, that are red all the way through, all the way around. Because I know, again, those are close to ripeness.
But I don't want strawberries that are so right that they start to decompose or mold or get watery inside the package.
BLOCK: And then you just cross your fingers and hope that they taste like something.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PRITTS: That's right. And, you know, the breeders don't intentionally select for strawberries that don't taste good. It's just that it's hard to have that flavor and everything. So, sometimes they hit a homerun and end up with something that's really high yielding and productive, and tastes really great, too. But a lot of times they don't quite get there.
BLOCK: Well, Marvin Pritts, thanks so much for talking to us.
PRITTS: You're quite welcome, Melissa.
BLOCK: Marvin Pritts is a horticulture professor and a berry crop specialist at Cornell University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.