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Veggies as Tasty as Candy: The Quest for the Perfect Tomato

If junk food is carefully engineered to be as addictive as possible, should scientists do the same for vegetables? Humans have evolved to love...

If junk food is carefully engineered to be as addictive as possible, should scientists do the same for vegetables? Humans have evolved to love sweetness; tens of thousands of years ago (or even much more recently), the calories that sugar provides might have meant survival. Now, the craving for sweetness drives the candy industry and growing waistlines. But sugar isn't the only source of a sweet taste, as Rachel Nuwer reports at the Smithsonian:

The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes. Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness.


By changing the volatiles within a piece of produce—but not the sugar levels—scientists can theoretically make healthy food so much tastier that people actually want to eat more of it. Harry Klee, a researcher at the University of Florida, is using volatiles in his quest for the perfect tomato.

The bland, flavorless tomato that's so common now is a result of consumers wanting to eat it out of season, Klee says in this interview. In the 1940s, growers started breeding cheaper tomatoes that could last through the winter. The tomatoes lasted, but the flavor disappeared. Klee has been working for several years to bring it back, through a process of breeding—aided by genomics—that selects the best traits of heirloom tomatoes, and the perfect blend of volatiles, with a perfect piece of produce as the result.

In some ways, it seems like a noble quest. He isn't using genetic modification, just cross-breeding varieties of tomatoes using the best available scientific information. But do we really need to redesign the tomato? Why shouldn't we just eat existing heirloom tomatoes only when they're in-season locally, and already delicious? If getting people to eat healthier food is a design challenge, maybe it's one that should focus on behavior change rather than changing the food itself (or on marketing, as in this study that found placing an Elmo sticker on an apple made elementary students 65 percent more likely to eat it).

This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at and on Twitter at #chewonit.

Original tomato image via Shutterstock.

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