89.1 WEMU

The Search For Tastier Supermarket Tomatoes: A Tale In 3 Acts

Jun 3, 2016
Originally published on June 6, 2016 1:58 pm

One of my fondest childhood memories is of eating tomatoes. We picked them in the garden and ate them in sandwiches, sitting on a picnic table under the trees outside our house. That juicy, acidic taste is forever lodged in the pleasure centers of my brain.

For anyone with similar memories, supermarket tomatoes are bound to disappoint. Indeed, the classic supermarket tomato — hard, tasteless, sometimes mealy — has inspired countless bitter complaints.

Take a closer look at the tomato display in your local grocery store, though, and you'll notice some big changes.

Here's how. It's a three-act drama.

Act 1. The Florida tomato

For many years, until about 25 years ago, this was mainly what you'd find in the store during wintertime. So let's give this tomato its due: It is there in front of you, in the heart of winter, hundreds of miles from the field where it grew. Also, it's pretty cheap.

To accomplish that feat, this tomato has to be tough. In the field, it has to deal with wind, rain, insects and plant diseases. After picking, it has to survive sorting, packing, trucking, and the supermarket shelf. Consumers like tomatoes that are big. And growers, to stay in business, need to ship as many of the fruit as possible.

So tomato breeders have delivered exactly what the market demanded: a big, tough, high-yielding tomato. Taste hasn't had the same priority.

In addition, to make sure these tomatoes get to the store in presentable shape, they are picked while they are still green. The fruit turn red on their way to the consumer, and some tomato experts insist that they get just as ripe as they would have on the vine, but others admit that these tomatoes never will approach the taste and flavor of a tomato that's picked ripe.

Act 2. The Mexican tomato

Over the past two decades, Mexico has turned into a tomato powerhouse. And it's brought a new production style to supermarket tomatoes.

Most Mexican tomatoes now grow inside simple plastic greenhouses called shade houses that cover vast fields. The plants grow in the soil, but they are protected from the rain, wind and many of the insects that afflict field-grown tomatoes.

It gives these tomatoes two advantages. First, they can stay on the vine just a bit longer, allowing more natural ripening. Second, in contrast to the open-field farmers of Florida, shade-house tomato producers grow "indeterminate" tomato varieties. These plants produce fruit continuously for a longer period of time. According to Robert Heisey, a tomato breeder at United Genetics in Hollister, Calif., fruit from such plants typically have higher levels of the soluble solids that provide much of a tomato's flavor.

On the other hand, these tomatoes still have to be big and tough. The typical Mexican tomato may taste a bit better than its Florida cousin, but probably not by much.

Act 3. Greenhouse tomatoes

Meet the most pampered tomatoes on Earth. They grow in huge climate-controlled structures, often in Canada, sometimes in Mexico and only occasionally in the United States. (The U.S. has been a laggard in the greenhouse business, although that's starting to change.)

Companies in the Netherlands pioneered this technology and have exported it to the rest of the world. In greenhouses, tomato plants don't grow in soil at all, but rather in crushed stone or coconut husks. Nutrients and water arrive via plastic tubes. Sometimes, extra carbon dioxide is added to the air in these houses, to promote faster plant growth.

I visited a tomato-growing greenhouse recently that's operated by Mastronardi Produce Sunset Grown, a major tomato grower and distributor based in Kingsville, Ontario. Before I got close to the tomato plants, I first had to put plastic booties on my shoes, wear a special lab coat and wash my hands. It was all intended to keep me from tracking in plant diseases.

This ultra-protected style of tomato production has opened the door to an entirely new family of tomato varieties.

Tomatoes-on-the-vine made their appearance some 20 years ago. More recently, there's been a proliferation of small tomatoes that come packaged in plastic containers. Supermarket shelves are now filled with cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes the size of golf balls. Almost all of them come from high-tech greenhouses.

And because these tomatoes are protected while they are growing, and handled more gently while they're packed and shipped, it means that — in theory, at least — these tomatoes can offer better flavor. They can be picked when ripe, and bred for flavor rather than for toughness.

That's the opportunity that Paul Mastronardi glimpsed when he joined the family business in the 1990s.

"I went over to Holland and talked to a couple of the major seed companies, and said, 'Listen, I want to see everything that's in your kitchen,' " he says. " 'Forget about size. Let's just see everything you got. Let's start doing taste tests.' And that's when we found a variety called Campari, which became the first branded tomato."

Mastronardi says they're constantly looking for new varieties with superior flavor. In the company's administrative offices, there's a lineup of candidate tomatoes on display. Employees can stop by, sample them and rate each one.

The seeds for such new varieties may be the most expensive seeds in the world. According to sources in the industry, greenhouse operators are paying about a dollar per seed for Campari and similar tomatoes. Since tomato seeds are tiny, that translates to about $150,000 per pound of seed. (In case you're wondering: No, you can't retrieve seeds from a Campari tomato and sell them for this price. Campari tomatoes are genetic hybrids, so their seeds won't produce true Campari offspring.)

Even greenhouse producers, though, have to navigate the tension between taste and economic efficiency. Heisey, the tomato breeder, recently picked up some tomatoes in the store and measured their levels of soluble solids, an indicator of flavor. "The greenhouse tomatoes were terrible," he says. He suspects that greenhouse operators, too, are emphasizing quantity of production over quality.

Nor are greenhouse varieties like Campari the only attempts to deliver a better-tasting supermarket tomato. Researchers at the University of Florida have also come come up with new varieties that promise superior taste, and they can be grown in open fields.

No matter what the variety, though, tomatoes have to get special treatment in order to deliver that great flavor. They have to be grown carefully, harvested when they're mature, and treated gently on the way to market. The result? They're also more expensive. When I visited a grocery store close to NPR recently, tomatoes from Florida and Mexico were selling for $2.50 a pound. A pound of Campari tomatoes cost $4.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


And, you know, we've been spending some recently on the show talking about food. And I am back with one of our colleagues from NPR's food blog The Salt. It's NPR's Dan Charles. Hey, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Hey, David, nice to be here.

GREENE: Well, it's good to have you here with a spread of various plates of food.

CHARLES: So, David, it's summertime. We are going to be talking tomatoes this morning and why you can't really get a great tomato in the supermarket.

GREENE: Which makes me a little sad because I kind of like tomatoes, Dan. I didn't like tomatoes when I was growing up as a kid, which I've heard a lot of people say, that tomatoes are sort of an acquired taste as you get older.

CHARLES: I loved tomatoes growing up.

GREENE: You liked it the whole time.

CHARLES: Well, we grew tomatoes in the garden and in the summertime you'd go out and sit at the picnic table and have tomato sandwiches. It was pretty amazing.

GREENE: Tomato sandwiches - just bread and tomato.

CHARLES: And celery salt, but I'm not going to admit that on the air.

GREENE: You just admitted it, Dan. You just admitted it and it's going to stay right in there. So here's my memory. I would just eat sliced tomatoes at my grandmother's apartment building in New Jersey on the beach. We'd buy them at a farm stand, not the grocery store. And it was, like, the memory of summer. Slice them up, a good bit of salt, which just added something to it. And after a day at the beach, I loved it.

CHARLES: If you have great expectations for a tomato, supermarket tomatoes are often full of disappointment.


CHARLES: And this morning, I have a story in three acts.

GREENE: Oh, it's like a play. This is a play by Dan Charles.

CHARLES: The reasons why and a look toward the future. So act one, take the cover off this tomato.

GREENE: All right. It was labeled number one. It looks like a good old-fashioned, round, sort of large tomato.

CHARLES: Yeah, slicing tomato they called it in the supermarket.

GREENE: Slicing tomato, OK.

CHARLES: I am going to take a slice out of it. And we're going to taste it, so hang on here. Here's one slice.

GREENE: All right, there's a chunk - kind of awful to me.

CHARLES: Not so good.

GREENE: Not so good. It's a little crunchy and tasteless.

CHARLES: Well, this is your classic supermarket tomato, probably grown in Florida this time of year.

GREENE: Not a fan.

CHARLES: But it got here, right, so - which is kind of amazing - hundreds of miles away and it got here and it looks great. It looks pretty red.

GREENE: But don't judge a tomato by its cover.

CHARLES: But the way it got here - I mean, you had to do certain things to this tomato to make it arrive at a supermarket hundreds of miles away. So the first thing they did was they bred this tomato to be large and also very firm. It had to be tough to survive this.

GREENE: Oh, because if it was soft it would get crushed and smushed before it made it.

CHARLES: Exactly, so a lot of the juiciness probably got lost along the way as they bred this hard tomato.

GREENE: Yeah, sure did.

CHARLES: The other thing is it has to survive the field in Florida with diseases and pests and rain and wind and...

GREENE: A lot of enemies.

CHARLES: So they actually pick it when it's still green. It gets red along the way to the supermarket. But, you know, if you pick a tomato when it's green, it's not going to have that sort of natural ripening process on the vine the way it really should. So act two.


CHARLES: Lifting the cover of this tomato.

GREENE: Looks similar but a little shinier and healthier maybe.

CHARLES: A little redder.


CHARLES: So this is a hothouse tomato.


CHARLES: It comes from Mexico. And the Mexican industry has taken a little bit of a different route. They grow their tomatoes for the most part in shelter, what you might call shade houses.

GREENE: Greenhouses I'm imagining or is this a different thing?

CHARLES: They're not full, high-tech greenhouses. But they are protected from the elements.

GREENE: All right.

CHARLES: And that allows them to do a couple of things. It allows them to let that tomato stay on the plant a little bit longer. These are tomato plants that are so-called indeterminate varieties. They keep producing fruit through the growing seasons, so workers go through picking them again and again. And those kind of plants, plant breeders tell me, are going to be a little higher in those soluble sugars, the flavor carrying...

GREENE: I have a bad taste in my mouth from this Florida tomato. Could we dig into the Mexican tomato here?

CHARLES: Let's take a slice. Here we go.

GREENE: I have high expectations. I'm just going to grab - this feels - this does feel better, a little wetter, yeah, a little more memory from childhood. Salt would help. I'm not going to lie. You didn't bring any. That's OK. I forgive you. We're cool.

CHARLES: So a little bit better but still really big tomato - it's still got to be bred for firmness, for toughness, in order to get here. So act three, taking the lid off these.

GREENE: Those are small.

CHARLES: Like a squash ball size.

GREENE: Yeah, like golf ball, right?

CHARLES: Golf ball size.

GREENE: Do you play squash?

CHARLES: No, but my wife does.

GREENE: OK. I don't play squash. I would play golf.

CHARLES: So let's take a taste. I'm just going to cut this one in half. You get half and I get half.

GREENE: OK. These little tiny tomatoes taste much better than anything you've given me so far. Is that where we're going with this, smaller tomatoes are better?

CHARLES: Well, there is an interesting thing about these tomatoes. So this is a true greenhouse tomato. These are the most pampered tomatoes on Earth. They're grown in these...

GREENE: Treating them - tomatoes like children here we're talking about.

CHARLES: Amazing structures, huge structures. I visited one up in Canada. It was 50 acres.


CHARLES: Fifty acres under glass - perfect conditions for growing tomatoes. The roots are in ground-up rock. They're not even in soil anymore. They get their nutrients in their water fed to them through little tubes.

GREENE: You're doing these hand motions like this is this beautiful wonderful art that's going on to create these tomatoes.

CHARLES: Basically if you grow tomatoes in a protected structure like that and then treat them very gently, you can do a couple of things. One is you can pick them when they are truly ripe.

GREENE: Which you've said is key.

CHARLES: Yeah. And the second is they've actually gone and tried to find a better tomato, gone back to the plant breeders and said find us a tomato that really tastes great as opposed to one that's big or one that's solid or one that's going to hold up on the shelf life.

GREENE: And let me guess, you're going to tell me that this whole process makes these beautiful-tasting things a lot more expensive.

CHARLES: Well, it does. This tomato that I brought you in the little clamshell package, that was $4 a pound.


CHARLES: The other tomatoes were $2.50 a pound.

GREENE: If I, you know, don't want to spend that much or don't have that much money to spend on my tomatoes, I mean, am I just stuck with this kind of not so good tasting big Florida firm dry thing?

CHARLES: Well, unless it's tomato growing season and you can grow your own or you can find a farmer who's growing tomatoes nearby...

GREENE: But at the grocery store I'm kind of out of luck.

CHARLES: In the grocery store, it's a tough business. And that is - that is the trade-off you're looking at. Are you going to go for cheap production or are you going to go for, you know, great taste with less yield?

OK. So one last thing, David, one last rule - if you don't want to destroy your own tomatoes that came out of the grocery store or anywhere, don't put them in the refrigerator

GREENE: Whoa, never put tomatoes in the refrigerator.

CHARLES: Never put a tomato in the refrigerator. If it goes below 55 degrees, it just shuts down the process within the tomato that produces those luscious soluble sugars.


CHARLES: It'll just ruin the tomato. Don't do it.

GREENE: OK, talking tomatoes with NPR's Dan Charles. Thanks, Dan.

CHARLES: Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.