Let's face it. The contemporary tomato as we know it is facing a crisis. We don't know when it started for sure, but at some point the tomatoes stocked in most supermarkets and grocery stores became, well, terrible. Watery. Bland. Flavourless. A shadow of their former tomato selves. How did this happen?
According to Jinhe Bai, a researcher with the US Department of Agriculture, the culprit is modern food transportation techniques. "Ideally, tomatoes should be picked ripe and then sold immediately, as they are at farm stands," he explains in a press release. Unfortunately, the commercial tomatoes stocked in most food shops get to our kitchens by very different means.
They're picked unripe, artificially ripened by gas (ethylene), then stored at cold temperatures to maintain their freshness during shipping over large distances. The whole process leaves the resulting produce tasting unripe and thin, a million miles away from homegrown or organic tomatoes.
Luckily for us, Bai and his colleagues have figured out how to make shipped tomatoes taste like they came straight out of a slow-mo burger commercial. In research presented this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, the scientists say we can avoid degrading the flavour of tomatoes by making a few small tweaks to current production techniques.
"To produce a better tasting tomato, we added a hot water pre-treatment step to the usual protocol that growers follow," Bai said. "We found that this pre-treatment step prevents flavour loss due to chilling."
Essentially this involves dunking tomatoes in hot water (about 51 degrees Celsius) for 5 minutes, letting them cool at room temperature, and then commencing the regular chilling process. The researchers say that ripened tomatoes produced using this method not only taste better, but contain higher levels of flavour compounds (6-methyl–5-hepten–2-one, 2-methylbutanal, and 2-phenylethanol).
"Chilling suppresses production of oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur-containing heterocyclic compounds, ketones, alcohols and aldehydes, including 13 important aroma components of tomato flavour," said Bai. "But hot water-treated fruit actually produced higher concentrations of these important aroma contributors, even with subsequent chilling."
The researchers are also exploring other techniques to restore the commercial tomato to its former glory and say they will approach food processing companies in the future to see if any are interested in adopting the new methods. Fingers crossed they are. It's time for the flavourless tomato to ship off elsewhere.