The search for a better supermarket tomato


Few tastes rival that of a garden-fresh tomato: its sweet, juicy flesh bursts with intense flavor. By comparison, run-of-the-mill supermarket tomatoes are almost always a bitter disappointment. Their bright color belies the insipid flavor and cardboard-like texture that lies within. But in the last several years, growers have been searching for ways to improve the taste of supermarket tomatoes, and as NPR reports, they are making progress.

The supermarket tomatoes we are most familiar with in the US usually come from Florida. Starting nearly 20 years ago and growing in popularity since that time, a new variety from Mexico hit the produce bins. The introduction of this variety brought with it a new production style to supermarket tomatoes. Most Mexican tomatoes "grow inside simple plastic greenhouses called shade houses that cover vast fields. The plants grow in the soil, but they are protected from the rain, wind and many of the insects that afflict field-grown tomatoes," like those from Florida. The advantages of this method are two-fold: first, the tomatoes can ripen a bit longer, and the variety of tomato used, called "indeterminate" produce fruit consistently over a longer time period. In contrast, "determinate" tomato plants produce fruit all at once for a very brief period. Indeterminate plants also usually contain "higher levels of the soluble solids that provide much of a tomato's flavor."

The third type of tomato that you'll likely find in the supermarket is a greenhouse tomato, which isn't grown in soil at all, but rather a nutrient-rich hydroponic solution. You'll find that the vast majority of these tomatoes comes from greenhouses in Canada and Mexico (the US lags behind in greenhouse development, but is slowly catching up). Most greenhouse tomatoes are small grape or cherry varieties. Because they are protected from the elements and from pests and are handled more gently while packed and shipped, these tomatoes can (in theory) offer better flavor. They "can be picked when ripe, and bred for flavor rather than for toughness," unlike the larger soil-grown tomatoes.

But that isn't the end game in the search for better-tasting supermarket tomatoes. Researchers at the University of Florida have also come up with new varieties that promise superior taste, and they can be grown in open fields. They are finding their way to stores in limited markets. Have you noticed any improvement in the flavor and texture of supermarket tomatoes in your area?

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