Taste is cerebral, as much on the brain as it is on the tongue.
A sumptuous bite of tomato is a trek down memory lane, a synaptic journey triggered by flavors from childhood, archived forever yet easily reawakened.
Flavor is the final frontier for tomato breeders, but it’s a fickle and elusive trait, a moving target influenced more by memories and growing conditions than a genetic treasure hunt or a DNA bull’s eye.
“There is no litmus test for flavor in tomato,” says Jay Scott, University of Florida tomato breeder at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm. “If we had a marker, we could grind up DNA, put it in there and get that perfect tomato. But it’s difficult with many environmental influences.”
Despite the obstacles, Scott stalks the Holy Grail of taste in hopes of developing a red, firm, sweet-tasting fruit that rekindles reveries of backyard tomatoes--a premium tomato that pleases taste-buds, pulls heart-strings and opens purse-strings.
Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee, says that’s a tall order.
“The tomato has a wider range of tastes,” he says. “Flavor is harder to define because it doesn’t have a single profile. Everybody has a different idea of what’s a good tasting tomato. It’s tied to an emotional experience while growing up on their knees next to grandpa in his garden. And they expect that experience when buying a tomato.”
Toss in disease resistance, aromatics and florals, and the difficulty multiplies.
Despite the obstacles, Scott has captured many of those tangibles and intangibles in his latest release—Tasti-lee. Deep red with high lycopene, it packs the crimson gene, which intensifies the pronounced red pigment inside, especially the locular jelly around the seeds.
“It’s redder than normal, which anyone would prefer,” Scott says.
Then there’s the acidity. “You need acids to carry a sweet flavor. Under some conditions, the sweetness can disappear, and you can get bland tasting tomato. You need a base amount of sugars and acids. Tasti-Lee has that.”
Find flavor first, add disease resistance later
Because flavor is so ethereal, it’s more practical to find it first—if you can—then add the DNA markers for the various disease resistances, Scott says.
His 10-year project with Tasti-Lee left some DNA footprints. “Once you have a genetic background for good flavor, the easiest way to proceed is to add disease resistance as opposed to taking those parents and trying to move flavor out of that background into some disease-resistance background.”
Tasti-Lee is resistant to Fusarium wilt races 1,2,3, Verticillium race 1 and gray leaf spot. Resistance to tomato yellow leaf curl virus, bacterial spot and tomato spotted wilt virus will be added soon.
Then come the fruity florals and aromatic notes. “We’re improving it more by putting fruity floral into Tasti-Lee,” Scott says. “If we get that done, we’ll have a sweet little Tasti-Lee with good resistance.”
The hope is people will pay more—like they do for grape tomatoes—and growers will make a steadier income because consumers like it so much that Florida’s 36,0000 tomato acres can’t keep up.
Time will tell
Tasti-Lee is ramping up for test-marketing with a major market chain. If those go well, the chain will get a 12-month supply to pull acreage through.
“It’s easier to tell farmers you grow this and you should be able to make money,” Scott says.
The tomato also will be test-marketed in Atlanta, Indianapolis and Richmond, Va., through a grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumers.
Bejo Seeds the licensee of Tasti-Lee
Any new tomato that competes with vine-ripe and greenhouse-grown for shelf-space and consumer tastes must feature that emotional hook that wows the tongue and tugs at the heart.
Greg Styers, sales manager for Bejo Seeds in the Southeast, says Tasti-Lee has that, and more. Bejo has the rights to Tasti-Lee.
“Tomatoes are one of the most purchased and yet the most disappointing to the customer,” he says. “Tasti-Lee makes sense: Consumers are insisting on better flavor, and Florida field growers are anxious to compete with the greenhouse tomato market—TOV [tomatoes on the vine]—and retailers strive for a more satisfied customer.”
Overall, “The flavor, internal color, and internal structure when compared to other tomatoes in its class from the supermarket is superior,” he says.
Growers can produce and easily deliver a premium product using established vine-ripe growing practices.
Tasti-Lee is meant to ripen on the vine—no gassing required. It remains firm even when fully ripe, so it’s easy to handle and pack, Styers says. Growers can leave it on the vine to let the flavor fully develop.
That vine-ripened firmness, he says, is a big part of the package of health, flavor and freshness—not so evident to consumers—but a big plus for growers, distributors and retailers.
Taste has taken a back seat to agronomic traits
After decades of breeding for the farmer, scientists are now developing varieties for the consumer, shifting focus from plow to plate.
Traditionally, tomato breeders have bred for yield, disease resistance and shippability at the expense of flavor.
“There is some credence that flavor has taken a back seat to other priorities,” Scott says. “But there is no easy way to breed for flavor in tomato. It’s a complicated trait genetically with a lot of environmental influences… It boils down to a lot of tasting and repetitive testing.”
In a segregating generation from a cross of good and lesser-flavored parents, 20 percent of test tomatoes taste good, which isn’t bad, he says. But it’s not that simple.
Scott grows seed from that. “Some you thought were good aren’t good. Some may segregate. Eventually you come out of an original cross, and it might taste good, but it will take a couple years to see if that flavor holds under many environmental conditions.”
Pass the Brix, please
As sweet as Tasti-Lee is, more sweetness lays down the road. Fruity floral is being incorporated into the parents of Tasti-Lee, a process that will take several backcrosses.
Line 8629 is one that’s emerged from this process, packed with fruit floral notes. Taste panels like the sweetness and florals.
“We know the concept will work; now the trick is getting the parents developed,” Scott says. “The 8629 tastes good, but production isn’t good. Fruit’s too small. Fruit’s too soft.”