The Unsavory Supermarket Tomato

You enjoy fine food but to most stakeholders in the food supply chain, food is a just a business. Sorry. Ill pause while you gather yourself ⌛. The perfect example of this is the supermarket tomato. They are not designed for eating - they are designed for selling.

You go to the supermarket, look at the tomatoes, check the price and put one in your basket. Your selection was based on looks - not taste. And - of course this tomato has to be profitable. So tomato growers have gone to the drawing board to engineer a tomato that will maximize profits (we are pro-profit, but follow along). So they designed one that:

  • Matures fast
  • Won't crack
  • Ripens evenly*
  • Size (believe me, it matters)
  • Firm enough to handle harvest machinery, packing, transport and repeated groping. 
  • Stays 'fresh' for extended periods of time. Irony.

Note, the word taste did not appear on the checklist. Instead of taste, tomato breeders have worked for the last 70 years to create fruits that are uniformly light green before they ripen. Harvesting becomes easier (ie less expensive) when fruits become ripe all at once instead of at the top end first. That means it is time to harvest.

So, the protein (GLK) that controls ripening can be manipulated to get the intended result. Awesome! Nope, that same GLK protein in the leaves of tomato direct the production of chloroplasts, which as you recall from 4th grade, run photosynthesis - which, of course, converts sunlight into sugars. Some of which ends up in the tomato as sweetness and flavor. 

So the tradeoff for a great looking tomato is the fact that it is an unsavory, tasteless tomato. Its in your store too. A study in 25 countries found that 100% of supermarket tomatoes had these gene mutations. 

I looked into this when I heard a friend refer to the 'rubber tomato'. Makes sense now. We teach our kids to not judge people on their looks - but what's on the inside, right? Shouldn't we treat our produce the way? 

The solution is to go to local farmers markets or better yet - grow your own. Buy some heirloom tomato seeds of the varieties you want to eat - not selected by some unknown category manager at Big Grocery headquarters. Pick heirloom varieties that have been proven and loved for generations. And most importantly, learn to accept some imperfection in the appearance of your tomato. Gramps would say that's 'character'. Plus you will save tons of money growing your own. 

The Unsavory Supermarket Tomato

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