VIII: Tomato

What happened to all the flavor in tomatoes?

Tomatoes on the vine. Photo by Tom Hermans / Unsplash
Tomatoes on the vine. Photo by Tom Hermans / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is octidi, the 28th of Vendémiaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate la tomate, onion's long-lost flavor buddy.

Lycopene is one of those awesome chemicals that does pretty much one thing – dye foods on the red/orange/pink spectrum – and therefore gets credit for doing a lot of other things. If you see dietary advice about how lycopene can cure your whatever, ignore it. An inert form of Vitamin A, lycopene's unproven benefits and occasional allergenic properties make it a nice natural food coloring for tomatoes, carrots, grapefruits, and the like ... and nothing else worth writing home about.

Tomatoes evolved to throw pretty much everything at the wall and hope it would make them tasty. Unlike other fruits, which pump themselves up with one attractive chemical to ensure consumption, tomatoes are a radically complex mixture of acids and sugars and volatile organic compounds that all dance around on taste buds screaming "eat me!"

Or, they were. We've – sort of accidentally, sort of on purpose – bred half the flavor out of tomatoes. The effect has accelerated in recent generations, prompting a lot of scientists to figure out what exactly tomatoes "naturally" taste like, what chemicals make up that taste, where those chemicals disappeared to, and how (or if) we can get them back.