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Process Developed to Determine Tomato Flavor Chemistry

Tomato slices (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

(Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

Researchers from University of Florida and Ohio State University have developed a method to reveal the chemical composition of tasty tomatoes that the researchers say can lead to better-tasting tomatoes in the supermarket. Their findings appear online in the journal Current Biology (paid subscription required).

The interdisciplinary team led by Florida horticultural sciences professor Harry Klee included molecular biologists, food scientists, statisticians, and dental school faculty, as well as a commercial market researcher. The researchers examined the properties of the heirloom tomato, an older variety not bred for large-scale production and prized for its authentic tomato taste.

To discern the qualities that made the heirloom tomato special, the team also had to examine the chemical components of nearly 100 tomato varieties. The researchers calculated the levels present of each chemical identified, and then subjected the tomatoes to taste tests.

The taste tests were conducted with 13 panels of 100 people who rated each tomato’s taste. The team then analyzed their data to determine the chemicals that were most abundant in the tomatoes that people liked the most and the least.

The results returned some surprises. The analysis showed the chemical geranial, which had previously been considered less important to tomato taste, correlated strongly with the highest-rated tomatoes and enhanced sweetness. On the other hand, cis-3-hexenal that is found in many tomatoes and had been considered important to tomato taste, had little correlation to the preferences of the panels.

In addition to heirloom tomatoes, the researchers discovered other varieties that scored highly with the panels: cherry tomatoes Cherry Roma and Maglia Rosa, medium-sized Ailsa Craig, and the large German Queen tomato.

Tomatoes are an important product to Florida, where the state’s crop for 2010-2011 was valued at $431 million. But the findings, which indicate the natural chemicals that contribute to sweetness without sugar or artificial sweeteners, have implications beyond that one crop. The university says it has filed a patent for those chemicals.

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