(March 23) Think flavor is something you control in your backroom and on the sales floor? Think again.

Seed companies and grower-shippers are devoting time, money and effort to improving taste and flavor long before the product finds its way to your retail shelves.

Through cross-pollination, hybridization and years of research and development, new varieties are delivering more flavor than what the consumer is accustomed to, since flavor has taken a back seat in years past.

“What happened over the last 10-15 years is that shippers have tried to appease retailers by giving longer shelf life and better appearance. We’ve worked on physical attributes instead of flavor,” says Jaime Weisinger, director of marketing for Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee, Fla. “We have created a tomato that will last 14-21 days on a shelf, but does it have flavor? Is it the best tasting tomato we can come up with? I’m not sure.”

Since everyone has his own perception of flavor and what it entails, enhancing flavor can be difficult.

Omar Diaz, director of business development at Seminis Vegetable Seeds, Oxnard, Calif., says taste refers to flavor characteristics. “For instance, our breeders work to increase the sugar levels in products like tomatoes, control the heat in jalapeno peppers and reduce the pungency in onions,” he says.

Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., defines flavor as a combination of traits like texture, aroma, juiciness, color and aftertaste. “It is a total sensory, emotionally charged experience that, in the case of berries, is heightened because consumers are eating something nutritious,” says Tim Youmans, national retail sales manager.

No matter how its defined, the loss of flavor has affected produce sales.

“There is lost distribution, and people blame it on changing consumer patterns and convenience,” says Edmund LaMacchia, national produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, a chain of 148 stores. “I would argue and blame it on the loss of the art of handling product, which doesn’t focus on how to preserve flavor. Instead, it focuses on how to preserve shelf life and quality.”

LaMacchia suggests that the loss of flavor has created a business opportunity for Whole Foods. “We are at the apex of consumers missing flavor. I think they will start looking back to flavor,” he says.

BEHIND THE SCENES

The process of improving flavor is a painstaking one.

Diaz says Seminis uses traditional cross-pollination methods that date back hundreds of years to create new varieties, then harvests the seeds from those varieties so growers can produce them commercially.

Seminis spends about $50 million each year in research and has 48 research facilities in 19 countries.

Driscoll has flavor built into its mission statement: to provide a delightful eating experience for berry consumers. The company uses hybridization as a means of improving flavor and has committed more than 50 years of research and development to it.

The 20-year-old breeding program at Sun World International Inc., Bakersfield, Calif., is aimed at enhancing the overall quality of peaches, plums, apricots and seedless table grapes. “Our breeders take two parents, each of which have several desirable characteristics, … and then cross them in the hopes of creating offspring that have the perfect combination of those traits,” says David Marguleas, senior vice president.

In making those crosses, the breeding program produces 20,000 to 30,000 potential new varieties each year, from which Sun World might select one or two new commercial fruits. Marguleas says it takes about 10 years from the time Sun World makes a cross to the time the fruit is in commercial production.

FLAVOR TESTING

When a Seminis breeder thinks he has the right cross, small amounts of seed are produced, and the new variety is tested under various growing conditions, sometimes for years, to determine field characteristics such as yield and flavor features such as sweetness, Diaz says.

Initially, flavor is tested in the field simply by eating the item. Diaz says the company’s experienced personnel know just by tasting a variety if it has the correct flavor for a commercial product.

Some fruits and vegetables have strict flavor guidelines. “Onions sold as Vidalia onions must meet very specific requirements for sweetness. In these types of cases, our products are laboratory tested,” Diaz says.

Seminis also uses a Vegetable Quality Lab, a panel of professional tasters and consumer test trials.

Sun World evaluates flavor on a weekly and yearly basis. “The first and foremost hurdle the variety needs to meet is that is has to have better flavor than anything else on the market at that time,” Marguleas says.

With tree fruit and grapes, flavor usually is gauged by testing brix levels, although acidity is important, too.

Retailers also test for flavor. LaMacchia of Whole Foods says the chain has a team of seven field inspectors who taste fruits and vegetables in test plots, evaluate how the product progressed from the time it was tasted to the time it was received in the store and then share that information with the growers.

THE DRIVING FORCE

Some say consumers drive flavor. Others say growers push it through the system.

Six L’s Weisinger says it’s consumers because they continue to stop at roadside stands.

Driscoll’s Youmans says the increasing number of educated and discriminating shoppers is continually raising the bar for flavor.

Varieties that had high yields didn’t sell well, Youmans says, so retailers are going back to more flavorful varieties. “More produce is eaten fresh versus just being used as an ingredient. It’s self-fulfilling — as flavor gets better, more fruit is eaten fresh,” he says.

Growers can push flavor, too. “Driscoll’s focus on delight, flavor and premium product quality flows from the farmers through the retailers to the consumers and back … in a continuous loop,” Youmans says.

Sun World pushes flavor through to retailers, Marguleas says. However, the company hears from its retail customers that flavor brings people back to the supermarket.

Mike O’Brien, director of the 102 Schnuck Markets Inc. stores in St. Louis, says the company isn’t close to seed producers; it’s the grower-shippers that are getting involved.

THE RETAIL ATTRACTION

Few retailers promote flavor, and O’Brien says retailers could do a better job. “Consumers buy produce first based on eye appeal, but taste is what brings them back for additional purchases,” he says.

Sun World’s Marguleas says retailers have an incredible opportunity to move beyond what one’s produce sales have been and look at flavor as a way to excite consumers.

And consumers need all the encouragement they can get to buy fresh produce, especially when magazines like Cooking Light say frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are a perfect fill-in for winter’s short supply. A piece called “Weighing Wintertime Produce Options” in the January/February issue says canned and frozen produce can be just as nutritious as fresh produce that is cooked.

Sun World suggests suppliers use packaging to promote flavor. The company developed a clamshell with graphics for table grapes that introduce consumers to new varieties with different flavor attributes.

As simple as it sounds, LaMacchia of Whole Foods says the key is sampling. “We sample all the time. When consumers eat something and have a great experience, there is no better advertising than that,” he says.

LaMacchia also says retailers need to do a better job of training their managers and clerks to handle produce. “People don’t think of a green grocer as being an esteemed person, and that’s unfortunate. The whole art of handling product is so important in preserving flavor,” he says.

Consumers are willing to pay for flavor, too. O’Brien of Schnuck’s says customers are interested in price, but they still want flavor in the produce they buy.

Weisinger of Six L’s says a perfect example of flavor beating out price is the increase in consumption of hothouse produce. “They are willing to spend more on something they perceive is a better produce,” he says.