One Scientist's Quest: Improving The Flavor Of Commercial Tomatoes

Aug 6, 2013

Grocery store tomatoes are bred for yield and firmness, not for flavor.

And even though taste is relative, researchers at the University of Florida, Gainesville, believe they can come up with varieties of delicious tomatoes that will also appeal to commercial growers.

“A large part of the problem here with the American diet is we’ve produced a whole lot of foods that just have lost their flavor, and people aren’t that interested in eating them,” molecular biologist and horticulturalist Harry Klee, who’s leading the tomato research, told Here & Now.


  • Harry Klee, professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
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It's HERE AND NOW. And I don't know about you, Robin, but I love tomatoes.


HOBSON: In fact, I buy them so often that I actually know the code for vine-ripe tomatoes at the supermarket - 4664.


I knew I liked you.


YOUNG: And now, even more, I live for tomatoes.

HOBSON: Well, our next guest really lives for tomatoes. He thinks that many of the tomatoes we buy are so bad that he wants to create a new tomato that can both ship a long distance and taste great. He is Harry Klee, and he's a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Professor Klee, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

HARRY KLEE: Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: Well, let me start with what I'm looking at in front of me right now, which is two tomatoes, and I want to start with one that came from more than 2,000 miles away. It's kind of orange, pretty firm. And let me take a taste of it really fast here. Hang on.


HOBSON: All right. Not that good. It's OK. But this is what we normally see. Sorry, excuse me. Let me finish eating my tomato.


HOBSON: This is a commercial tomato. Tell me why it tastes the way it does.

KLEE: Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. The first reason is that you can think of the modern agriculture as a kind of Faustian bargain. I think no matter how much lip service we give to locavore movements and all that, the reality is most people want their product when they want it and not when it's available seasonally. And so the industry has adopted to produce a tomato that you can get in February in Boston, and they've made some real compromises in terms of quality, in terms of shipability.

The other side of the equation I think, though, is that the farmers in Florida and Mexico for the most part are not paid to produce a quality product. They're paid to produce pounds of tomatoes, and there's no necessarily connection between what they taste like and how much the farmer gets paid for. So there's a lack of incentive for them to produce a good product.

HOBSON: And do Americans know the difference, for the most part? I mean I guess I could tell the difference between a really great tomato and a really bad one. But most of the time, if I'm getting a tomato at the supermarket, am I getting one that I'll be able to tell is not up to your standards?

KLEE: Oh, yeah. I think most of the tomatoes for various reasons be the variety handling practices, shipping, just not are up to the quality. I actually worry a lot that we're producing a whole generation of people who don't know what a great tasting tomato is.

HOBSON: Well, let me try this other one that looks really good, I have to say. This is from New Jersey. This is an heirloom tomato. It is a very bright red and let me have a little bite of this guy.


HOBSON: Umph. A lot more flavor in that one. I can really - that is one that I would like to just sit down and have the whole thing. But while I'm tasting this, why don't you tell me why that's so good?

KLEE: Well, it's several things. Basically, tomato flavor is - you have to have sugars, and you have to have acids, and you have to have them in the right balance, that kind of sweet-sour rare balance kind of thing. But you want volatiles. You want the things that you're smelling. And actually, the greatest way to tell you the difference is if you just take that tomato and hold your nose and take another bite of it and chew it and swallow it, you're going to lose all of the volatile chemicals, the things that we smell. And I think that you'll get a completely different reaction. It will probably taste a lot like the supermarket tomato in fact.

HOBSON: So you are trying to make it so that the tomatoes that can be shipped a far distance also taste really good. Tell us how you want to do that.

KLEE: Well, we're using genetics. We're trying to, number one, understand what is a good tasting tomato. And to do that, we've used a lot of heirlooms and a lot of consumers. We're trying to understand what is the chemistry of a great-tasting tomato. And then we take it at the next step and say, well, what's the genetics controlling that and what got lost a long the way? What got lost between the heirloom tomato that you just tasted and that commercial tomato that was shipped 2,000 miles? Some very intensive breeding that focused on things other than flavor. And we - if we understand that, we can capture it, and we can put it back in.

HOBSON: Now, Professor, there are going to be a lot of people that say, wait a minute, why are we trying to breed tomatoes to get the perfect one that both tastes great and can ship a far distance instead of just going to our local farmers market or growing a tomato in the backyard and keeping it local?

KLEE: No, that's a very good question. I think there are a couple of answers to that. First of all, it gets back to the fact that most people, you know, there's a small percentage of people who believe that they should buy the highest quality product, and they're willing to pay the money. The reality is it's a very small percentage of people. Most people want it year round. And we need to produce a quality product year-round. You know, you go into the supermarket. You buy a peach. And you can't taste it in the store. You bring it home, and you taste it.

And if it tastes like cardboard, like it frequently does, you say, oh, my god, I forgot how bad they are, and you don't go back and buy another one for six months till you've forgotten. If they're great, you got back to the store right away and buy them, and you're eating those things instead of candy, instead of other sweets. I mean, I think that a large part of the problem here with the American diet is we've produced a whole lot of foods that just have lost their flavor, and people aren't that interested in eating them.

HOBSON: So when are your tomatoes going to be ready for market?

KLEE: We've actually got some new hybrids that take heirlooms and cross them to more modern varieties that have far superior agronomic properties. If you have ever tried to grow these heirlooms, they're just a nightmare. You get a couple of fruit and maybe the plant gets diseased. So we've made these hybrids that have, you know, consumer panels all the flavor of the heirloom and far superior performance. We're talking twice as many fruit as the heirloom parent.

Those we'd like to get out into the hands of the consumer, you know, potentially within the next two years, if not sooner. The commercial tomato is much more of a challenge. The growers are not going to produce it unless they get just as much money out of it as their current varieties. And so we have to capture flavor in the context of something that's just as productive as is the current tasteless variety that they're growing right now. That's much more of a challenge, and that's where we really put the bulk of our effort.

YOUNG: Harry Klee is a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He's trying to give us all a better tomato. Mr. Klee, thank you so much.

KLEE: You're very welcome.


HOBSON: And we are listening here to "Hang On, Little Tomato" by Pink Martini. So if you listen really closely, you might be able to hear Ari Shapiro from NPR who often sings with Pink Martini.

YOUNG: A little-known fact.


HOBSON: A little-known fact. There you go. Well, coming up next, new music from Arlo Guthrie's daughter Sarah Lee. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.