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UC Food Safety
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UC Food Safety

Reader expresses skepticism about flavor research

A recent Food Blog post about a new research effort aimed at improving the flavor of fruits and vegetables found in American grocery stores prompted a scornful e-mail from a reader.

To whom it may concern, the letter-writer began, I find it appalling that $6 million is being spent to study something that any 3rd grader should be able to figure out.

The writer continued: "It is virtually impossible to enhance the flavor of an industrial farmed tomato because the flavor has been bred OUT of the varieties grown by big agriculture in favor of disease resistance and shelf stability. I can pick a green tomato from my yard and let it ripen on the counter and it will be delicious. That will just never be the case with most of the hybrids that have been developed over the past 20 years because flavor was NOT a priority. You can't add it in after the fact."

UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Beth Mitcham, director of the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, wrote the following response:

"I agree with part of your comment but not entirely. It is true that breeders have focused for many years on yield, disease resistance and long shelf life. However, in recent years, breeders are paying more attention to flavor quality. As you mentioned, you can take a green tomato and ripen it into a great tasting tomato. I have also done this with tomatoes obtained from a commercial field.

"The problem with tomatoes harvested green and ripened after harvest is that the fruit are exposed to low temperatures. Studies have shown that exposure of tomatoes for just 24 hours to temperatures of 50 degrees reduces their flavor compounds by 50 percent.  Most tomatoes are shipped to market at 45 to 50 degrees to reduce softening and decay.  Another problem with green tomatoes and many other fruit is the maturity of the fruit at harvest. The earlier it is picked, the less flavor compounds the fruit will produce when it is fully ripe.

"This $6 million grant is focused on providing growers and shippers with the tools to successfully pick more mature or riper produce and deliver it to consumers with good flavor. We are refining technologies to sort the fruit by maturity and ripeness to remove the under-ripe and overripe fruit before shipment, better packaging to prevent bruising of softer, riper fruit during transport, methods to slow further ripening of riper fruit after harvest that may allow us to ship fruit at higher temperatures so that flavor is not lost.

"While you can always get the best flavor quality when you take a ripe product off the plant and eat it within a day, many US consumers do not have easy access to these products and most cannot get access year-round.  While consumers recognize that fruits and vegetables are good for them, they only eat 2 to 3 servings per day (including French fries) instead of the 5 to 9 servings that are recommended.  We believe that poor flavor contributes to low consumption. Our goal is to improve the flavor quality of fruits and vegetables available through your local grocery market so that consumers eat more – hopefully reaching the 5-a-day recommended for good health."

Posted on Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 6:43 AM

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