WOODLAND, Calif. — Vegetable breeders for St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. have taken what they’ve learned about the complex genetics behind tomato flavor and have begun applying it to melon breeding.

The result is a line of hybrid melons that will be marketed under the SweatPeak brand, said Candace Wilson, vegetables account lead for consumer benefits and chain management.

The company is focusing on specialty melons and is working with grower-packer-shippers and retailers to determine potential releases’ appeal, she said.

“We’ve brought in many different melons that we’re trialing in the U.S.,” Wilson said. “Growers and retailers see the specific melons, taste them and touch them.”

The Sweet Peak Fuji, a hami-type melon that tastes like a cross between an Asian pear and a perfectly ripe honeydew, is nearing commercial release, she said.

“We’ve been sending samples around to lots of retailers in the U.S. and have been getting really great feedback,” Wilson said.

Lemon Drop, Golden Desire

But Monsanto isn’t the only company focusing on flavor and consumer traits.

Basel, Switzerland-based Syngenta also has an extensive specialty melon breeding program as well as continuing efforts to develop improved Western shipper cantaloupe varieties, said Mark Jirak, portfolio manager for melons, squash and cucumbers, who’s based in Kansas City, Mo.

“We plant melons that are usually recognized in different parts of the world to see if they’re locally adapted and if there’s an interest in trying to work with them,” he said.

The Lemon Drop melon marketed by Martori Farms, Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, is a Syngenta variety in which the grower-packer-shipper showed interest and obtained exclusive marketing rights.

But Jirak said there also remains a need for flavorful cantaloupe varieties.

“Melons have had their share of challenges, not from the West but from the industrywide impact of the eastern foodborne illnesses on cantaloupe,” he said.

“Consumers don’t separate the type of cantaloupe and where it’s grown. So the last thing we need is a cantaloupe that doesn’t taste good when we’re trying to bring back the customers and consumer demand.”

Syngenta’s new Golden Desire provides an early season partner to its mainstay Golden Express. Not only does the newcomer offer good sizes, averaging 6s and 9s, but Jirak said it also has good fusarium and powdery mildew resistance and good eating quality typically seen in later-season varieties.

Year-round consistentcy

Breeding for enhanced flavor attributes is being driven by a number of factors, said Sekhar Boddupalli, Monsanto Co. Vegetables global consumer research and development lead, Woodland.

Surveys have shown that consumers choose retailers based partly on the diversity of produce they stock. Retailers, on the other hand, use produce to help differentiate themselves from other grocery stores, he said.

“It’s becoming more and more of a trend for both the consumers and the retailers to focus on year-round produce supplies,” Boddupalli said. “Year-round, consistent flavor is important.”

Although melons imported from Central and South America have had good shelf life in the past, he said they had little flavor.

Heirloom varieties have wonderful flavor, but they may lack the shippability and shelf life that commercial outlets require.

“We’re combining the ability to ship the fruit while actually returning or bringing in this flavor,” Boddupalli said.

But flavor isn’t just brix or high sugar levels.

He said it also involves numerous other chemical components, such as volatiles and flavinoids, as well as the entire eating experience, including visual appearance and texture.

The charentais-like Melorange is an example of a melon with a long shelf life, good sugars and tantalizing aromas, Boddupalli said.

The fruit, slightly smaller than a cantaloupe, has deep orange flesh, sugars as high as 17 brix and a fragrance like cantaloupe.