“We know that the commercial tomato is a terrible product,” says Dr Harry Klee from the University of Florida.
Many people with discerning taste buds and a remembrance of the flavours of tomatoes in times past would agree. Why are we unable to get a tasty tomato mouthful any more?
The reason is, Dr Klee considers, that people don’t get paid to produce a tomato that tastes good. Tomatoes have been bred for years based on yield, so breeders have been encouraged to ignore flavour: it doesn’t pay. A taste bud tragedy.
The reasons behind the poor performance of the size-enhanced, flavour-denuded tomato are familiar to the proponent of holistic standardisation.
Chewing it over
Holistic standardisation is a big mouthful (like a good old-fashioned tomato would be), but it boils down to ensuring that everything that should be in a herbal extract is really there. When the herb is extracted after harvesting, everything that was originally in that herb is measured to ensure that it has stayed put. This is because the action of a herb is a team effort: everything in that herb is important and plays a part, however minor. Deciding that one of the ingredients isn’t that necessary and can be jettisoned risks losing something that either has a role not yet fully understood, or that backs up the role of another constituent, making it effective or safe or both.
This was shown when research on Echinacea identified the importance of the alkylamides it contained. When these alkylamides were extracted and concentrated, they didn’t perform nearly as well as when surrounded by the rest of their team. Yes, they are important, but they need the support of the other ingredients in order to do their best work.
Similarly, tomatoes can’t act like proper tomatoes if they are stripped of some of their component parts. Dr Klee and his team have identified some of the key ingredients that they believe allow tomatoes to have flavour – mainly carotenoid-derived volatiles. The problem with volatiles is that they are, as indicated by the name, volatile: they dissipate easily. This is why fresh herbs are more effective than dried, by the way: the volatile constituents haven’t had a chance to disappear.
Knowing that it’s necessary to track down everything that would originally have been in a good tomato, the Klee team have been able to produce a ‘map’ of the flavours necessary to give us a tasty tomato again. Until a breeding programme based on this taste bud treasure map can bring better tomatoes to the general palate, Dr Klee advises people who care about taste to eat smaller varieties that haven’t been so intensively bred. And, we would add, those who care about effective herbal extract should seek out holistically standardised varieties to ensure peak performance.
 The Times 27th May