News - February 2, 2017

Tomato of olden days not necessarily tastier

Tessa Louwerens

Last week, scientists stated in Science that in the past years, the flavour of tomatoes has become bland due to breeding, but by selecting ‘old’ genes, we could cultivate the original flavour again.
Wouter Verkerke, Flavour and Health researcher at WUR is not convinced.

Photo: Shutterstock

According to the Science researchers, in the past years, plant breeders have mostly been selecting properties such as disease resistance, but not flavour. They studied the genome and the chemical composition of a number of tomato varieties, both old and modern strains, and compared this with research dating from 2012 in which a test panel had to score tomatoes based on taste. This analysis revealed 13 compounds that give tomatoes their tasty flavour. These compounds occur less in the more modern strains, concluded the researchers.

What is original taste?
‘The researchers want to bring back the original flavour by focussing breeding on the genes that influence these compounds’, explains Verkerke. ‘But that “original flavour” is not necessarily “good”. From our own research, we know that the flavour of older strains is not necessarily better. I wonder whether the sampling was representative enough to make any statements about the differences between the old and new strains, in part because the average taste scores of the test panels were rather low. Another striking point is that the Science researchers approach taste as a sum of aromatic substances and sugars, while we now know that the interaction between these substances and the texture of the fruit plays an important role in the taste experience.’

Has the tomato become bland?
‘Based on our own flavour research with old and new strains in greenhouse production, I do not have the impression that the flavour of tomatoes has declined. I rather think that the taste has improved on average. There are older strains that taste good, but there are just as well older strains that taste worse. The same goes for modern strains. So, it all depends on which strains you choose for your study. I was not able to determine which old and modern strains the researchers gave to the test panel. My guess is that the new, tasty strains from modern greenhouse production were less represented. However, the study is very interesting from a scientific point of view, especially the biochemical and genetic parts. But I also think that we should not translate the results into the types of tomatoes we know in Europe.’