Here's Why the Modern Tomato Tastes Like Cardboard

Researchers have discovered the answer to the often-asked question: What happened to the tomato's flavor?

Sorted fresh vegetables laid out in even rows
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Summer tomatoes are so filled with promise: The deep, saturated color; the singular grassy tomato-leaf fragrance; the expectation of a mouthful of sweet-salty tomato exuberance. But alas, supermarket tomato after supermarket tomato does little more than disappoint. How can a fruit with so much potential constantly taste slightly salty and watery at best and a mealy globe of cardboard at worst?

We know that modern tomatoes sold at the supermarket are picked green and bred for pest resistance, shipping, and shelf life—and that the agriculture industry creates produce designed for profit, not flavor. Are these the factors to blame for the tomato’s blasé demeanor?

But even when allowed to ripen on the vine and shipped with great care, modern tomatoes are still insipid. When researchers looked into this tomato matter, they uncovered a fascinating genetic cause for the fruit’s tedium.

The mischievous culprit is a gene mutation discovered accidentally around 70 years ago, and on to which tomato breeders quickly latched. In fact, now the mutation has been deliberately bred into nearly all modern tomatoes.

Why? It makes them a uniform and seductive scarlet red when ripe.

Unfortunately for tomato lovers far and wide, the red-making mutation deactivates an important gene responsible for producing the sugar and aromas that are essential for a fragrant and flavorful tomato, as reported in the paper, which was published in the journal Science,

When the researchers “turned on” the deactivated gene, the fruit had 20% more sugar and 20-30% more carotenoids when ripe. Yet the fruit's non-uniform color and greenish pallor suggest that mainstream breeders will not be following suit anytime soon. So we’re stuck with beautiful tomatoes that taste like a mere hint of their former selves.

However, for anyone with a nearby farmer’s market, a supermarket that offers heirloom produce, or a garden in the back, there is a workaround for cardboard-flavored tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes and wild species have not had the tomato-ness sucked out of them by selective breeding—so shop for those, or grow them yourself. They may not look like the Disney version of a perfect fruit, but they actually taste like ... tomatoes.