Friday Rant: Genetically Enhanced Appearances — Why Most Tomatoes Are Mostly Tasteless

Clichés, while largely true, fail to penetrate our consciousness. Take for example "You can't judge a book by its cover" and "First impressions may not be as they appear". We know these are valid platitudes but in our quest for exquisite fruit, these expressions are now more spot on than ever when it comes to finding the perfect tomato.

I have long been skeptical when I hear friends and consumers get on a soap box to decry that genetically engineered foods, fruits and vegetables are unhealthy and should be avoided. Unless one grows their own fruits and veggies from heirloom seeds, nearly all the fresh produce we buy at market has been cross bred and (genetically) engineered for hundreds of years or it would never survive the rigors of being picked, packed and shipped. This is especially true of the tomato, which in its earliest native South American species, was far too fragile to transport beyond the garden to the table.

Early botanical engineering was of course highly empirical and mostly practical. But based on a new discovery from contemporary tomato breeders covered in today's New York Times, I have new found respect for my crunchy friends who grow their own. According to The Times "...researchers have discovered a genetic reason that diminishes a tomato's flavor even if the fruit is picked ripe and coddled. The unexpected culprit is a gene mutation that occurred by chance and ... was deliberately bred into almost all tomatoes because it conferred an advantage: It made them a uniform luscious scarlet when ripe." So that tomatoes would look more attractive on grocery store shelves, "the journal Science researchers report that the very gene that was inactivated by that mutation plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato." The upshot is that breeders, armed with these findings, will now be able to grow pretty tomatoes that will once again taste good as they should.

But why so much hype about cosmetics? Let's face it, raw food sources are not predominantly perfect or beautiful. Many of our staples like potatoes, onions, garlic and pepper corns -- not to mention fresh meat, fish and poultry -- are downright unattractive prior to preparation. Flavor rules. And when it comes to tomatoes, locally grown Jersey tomatoes in my region with their ridges, blemishes and yellow green highlights are the most sought after summer delicacy in the Northeastern U.S. Furthermore, when it comes to asthethetics, the back to basics heirloom seeds that produce incredibly delicious fruits and veggies from local gardens have often been harvested from excavations of old privies (a.k.a. outhouses).

We will all do well to focus more on the tasty results we wish to extract from our fresh purchases and less upon their appearance on the shelf. And in that spirit, if you're planning a 4th of July gathering next week, try this recipe for killer salsa that can't miss:

- Chop up a bunch of tasty ugly tomatoes with white, red and green onion along with red, orange and/or yellow peppers
- Add fresh lime juice, salt, pepper and a handful of freshly washed and chopped cilantro
- Consider a chopped ripe mango for sweetness and a hefty squirt of catsup made from genetically modified tomatoes

Drain off the juice to use in bloody marys, serve with organic chips and you'll be the celebrity chef of the party!

- William Busch

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First Voice

  1. Eric Strovink:

    Dammit, Bill, now you’ve made me hungry…

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