Last Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported on how farmers have selectively bred tomatoes to look more uniform - to suit consumer tastes - and in so doing, accidentally removed their flavor. Recently scientists have figured out a way to genetically modify these tomatoes to restore flavor. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you're one of those people), these Frankentomatoes will probably never see the artificial light of Safeway produce aisle fluorescent tube lighting day, given the companies that produce GMO produce do so to increase productivity, not quality. It makes no economic sense for Monsanto (or whoever) to invest in making better tasting produce, given Americans are perfectly happy eating cardboard, as long as it looks pretty.
The findings come from the journal Science, which explains that the flavorlessness occurs due to a lack of a protein that produces sugar in tomatoes. This carb omission also means the carotenoids - aka lycopene - takes a hit. In other words, not only do they taste bland, but they're not as good for you.
The consumer jackass
I include myself in this elite group of idiots. Whether I'm at the grocery store or the farmer's market, I usually look for a lack of blotches when picking tomatoes. Even when picking heirloom tomatoes, I'll opt for the ones with less of that brown scabby webbing. Ewww.
Ironically, animals do the exact opposite. When selecting fruit, they favor deeper hued fruit that's as ripe as possible, instinctively knowing it'll be sweeter and contain more healthy phytonutrients. As you can see from the photo above, the tomatoes we favor have less color, despite looking tidier. In other words, the human race has again managed to ignore survival instinct in favor of being anal retentive.
That's Doctor Larry David to you.
Why are scientists always trying to fix things with science? The researchers narrowed the problem down to two genes - GLK1 and GLK2 - that play an important role in harvesting sunlight in plants. By adding active GLK2 back in, they claim that they can bring tasty back for mass-produced tomatoes. In my mind, this is total Curb Your Enthusiasm logic, where society was done something stupid, so Larry David-inspired scientists want to do something even more stupid to fix the first stupid thing. We were too ignorant to know that selective breeding - which humans have done for centuries - was messing up tomatoes. Why on earth would genetic engineering - which humans have being doing for about five minutes - be the solution?
Here's a better idea: stop worrying about the blotches and start farming better tasting - albeit blotchier - tomatoes.
Leached lycopene and pirated polyphenols.
The Los Angeles Times piece focuses on the flavor issue, almost completely glossing over the real story here. As reported in this UC Davis press release, all this breeding has not only reduced flavor, but it's reduced the phytonutrient lycopene, which is widely known as the tomato's magic nutritional bullet. Lycopene is a carotenoid that acts as an antioxidant and immunity booster. After years of arguing over the benefits of conventional produce, here's solid proof that it's not as good for you.
To add insult to nutritionally deficient injury, here's a new study out of Spain showing that organic tomatoes have a higher polyphenol count. Polyphenols are antioxidant anti-inflammatories that you'll find in most plants. The theory in this study is that conventional farming uses nitrogen-rich soil that doesn't allow the tomatoes to activate their own natural defense systems. These systems - of which phenol compounds play a part - are what make tomatoes nutritious.
It's not a huge leap to apply these lessons to other plants. In other words, while it sucks that most Americans currently eat nutritionally deficient tomatoes and it's annoying that science thinks it can solve that with GMOs, the red-tinted silver lining is that this sordid tale builds very compelling evidence regarding the benefits of organic farming.
Now we just need to be patient and wait for conventional farmers to "ketchup" with our way of thinking.