Whether fruity, salty or even spicy, they are an essential part in almost every national cuisine. From Nigerian stew to American ketchup and Italian pasta sauces, fresh tomatoes, grown in many parts of the world, are the base for all of these culturally revered foods. And no matter what country, local markets typically offer a wide variety of tomatoes. Worldwide, there are an estimated 7,000 different types of fresh tomatoes ranging in color from green to golden yellow to bright red. They are classified into four main types: Round, Beef, Cherry and Plum tomatoes. Consistency, flavors and shapes of these tomatoes differ significantly. All in all, tomatoes are one of the most well-known and favored vegetables around the globe – although technically they are fruits, and more specifically, they are berries. With so many choices, what makes consumers in diverse countries such as Italy, Brazil, Turkey and the United States prefer one tomato to another?
Fresh Tomatoes: the Biggest Market by Value
Actually, worldwide tastes of tomato lovers are surprisingly distinct. “Generally, we see different preferences between males and females, by age, and by whether or not they are ‘foodies’,” explains US Professor Harry J. Klee, a Molecular and Cellular Biologist at the University of Florida, Gainesville. In a joint survey carried out together with his colleagues at the university’s Horticultural Science Department, Klee investigates which flavors consumers like best. “There are also subtle differences in cultures. How we use the tomato in our cuisine is critical to the type of tomato that we like,” says Klee.
Knowing that each country has specific requirements suggests that the tomato is a very complex crop. Jose Antonio Salinas Reyes, Crop Sales Manager at Bayer in Spain, explains some of the different desires: “The wishes of our Italian and Turkish customers cannot be compared. In Turkey, the key value drivers for tomatoes are the color, the green stem parts – known as the calyx – as well as a perfectly round shape. But in Italy, the one and only demand is the taste.” The highest selling tomato in Turkey is the Single Round. Bayer’s tomato variety Seyran F1 is a favorite in Turkey, with thousands of tons harvested every year. Seyran F1 has a deep red color, both inside and outside – a sign of its intense flavor. However, in Italy, the most favored tomato is green: “Our small-sized tomato variety, named Marinda, is highly appreciated due to its excellent taste. Consumers are willing to pay up to eight euros per kilogram,” says Salinas. Marinda is an established variety that belongs to the Marmande type, which has been a fixture on the Italian market for the last 25 years.
The tomato market is changing completely. Consumers want to come back to an original, intense taste.
Types of Quality Differ
While a soft texture makes tomatoes extremely flavorful, firmness increases their transportability. Avoiding over-ripeness is a key concern among tomato breeders: how to get the right tomato, in the desired firmness, to the consumers that want it. Seyran F1 tomatoes withstand transport and storage for more than 20 days. Such properties define the tomato market in which countries can compete: Almost half of Turkey’s Seyran F1 tomatoes are exported to other countries, mainly Russia and Germany.
Meanwhile, Italy has a primarily domestic market with 75 percent of tomatoes produced for local consumption. Beyond this, Salinas sees a new development: “The tomato market is changing completely. Consumers want to come back to an original, intense taste. Breeders are now focusing on good varieties for growers with a high level of taste for consumers. This is a global trend – but it’s especially strong in Europe.” Despite some local preferences, worldwide, tomato consumers are open-minded. They accept different types of fresh tomatoes and look for new taste experiences. Based on the answers from around 100 tomato lovers in the United States, Professor Klee and his team concluded which compounds are relevant for a delicious tomato.
From Golden to Bright Red
According to Klee, “sugars and acids are essential to likeability. But the organic compounds that easily evaporate, called volatile chemicals, are what really make people like or dislike a tomato. If certain volatiles are absent, the tomato has a very bland flavor that the participants don’t like.” Klee’s absolute favorite tomato in the US supermarket shelves is named Campari. In his opinion, it has the most original taste: “You get a complex sensation way beyond sweet and sour. The best tomatoes also have a lingering taste that can last a minute or more in your mouth,” he says.
A Highly Innovative Market
In almost all of Europe and the United States, tomatoes are a staple for most people. In some other countries, people seem to be less passionate. “Brazilian people like fresh tomatoes, although not as much as Italians. Brazilians, for example, like them in their salads,” says Luiz Tessarine, an account manager for tomatoes at Bayer Brazil. In his country, the leading variety on the market is named Pizzadoro, which belongs to the type Saladette. “Saladette has a remarkable good shelf life, offers a good quality and at the same time an intense flavor,” explains Tessarine. Another specific trend in Brazil among consumers are tomatoes grown carefully but not necessarily organic. Like the Italians, they are willing to pay for good quality.
Around 15,000 kilometers east of Brazil, in just one decade, tomatoes have rapidly established as a major crop in India. And the demand continues to grow: “Ten years back, there was almost no advanced tomato cultivation in India. But now, as tomato has become an important crop for income, professionalization and new innovations have been increasing,” says G.K. Madhusudhan, a regional product specialist for tomatoes at Bayer India.
100 Grams of Ripe Red Tomatoes Contain...
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2014, Indian farmers grew tomatoes on more than 880.000 hectares of agricultural land, producing more than 18 million tons. “As with other crops, there are three types of customers to serve: the growers, the traders and the consumers,” says Madhusudhan. “To sell their tomatoes on the Indian market, farmers need to produce a good quality fruit with uniform size, shape and color. Traders look for a tomato weighing around 90 to 100 grams each.” In addition to good shape and bright red color, firmness and good transportation are also important parameters in a tomato, when it is exported. “Consumers really want to feel the tomatoes,” Madhusudhan points out. The most popular tomato types in India are all typically red with sour taste. They are segmented into Saladette, Round and Indeterminate. And new cultivation practices and innovative technologies are leading to even more varieties.
The conditions under which tomatoes are grown worldwide differ significantly, from greenhouses in the Netherlands to field-grown tomatoes in Brazil or India. Bayer is breeding tomato varieties that thrive under all conditions. “We are focused on our customers’ needs and providing solutions. We develop good genetic crops which can d eliver yield for farmers and high quality for consumers,” says Salinas. By listening to growers and consumers, Bayer is helping farmers increase yields and improve profits while providing consumers with the taste and look they want. Good-quality tomatoes, which meet specific local market requirements, make it possible to find the perfect tomato for our favorite dish.
Complex Like a Symphony
US Professor Harry J. Klee is a researcher at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He and his team at the university’s Horticultural Science Department study the chemical and genetic makeup of flavor in tomatoes. Using statistical analysis, the scientists identified those chemicals that have significant correlations with likeability scores.
Which tomato compounds are relevant for a good taste?
Sugars and acids, in a proper ratio, are essential. But you need volatiles that are derived from amino acids and carotenoids (the pigments in the plants cells). Many of these are individually characterized as fruit or floral in odor. But it’s important to note that there is no single chemical or even a simple mix of a few that is easily recognized as a tomato. In that regard, it’s unlike some other fruits, such as oranges or bananas, which have one or two dominant notes that we immediately recognize. The tomato is complex like a symphony. You need all the parts to achieve perfection.
Why does the quantity of tomatoes sometimes also lower its taste and quality?
A large part of flavor is sweet. Breeders have focused on larger fruits that have lower concentrations of all the flavor chemicals, but particularly sugars. As they have emphasized larger fruits and higher overall yields, the photosynthetic machinery of the plant cannot keep up with filling the fruit with the building blocks for flavor chemicals. The overall effect is to dilute out the fruit. The added weight of the fruit is largely water. The breeders have been very s uccessful at increasing yield, measured in weight. But the plant is simply incapable of keeping up with the added demands of more and bigger fruit.
To what extent can your research influence agriculture in future?
We have determined exactly which chemicals are deficient in the modern tomato. We have identified the genes controlling synthesis of those chemicals and the alternative forms of those genes – known as alleles – that have been lost through the last 50 years of breeding. The exciting thing about focusing on volatiles is that we think we can make significant increases in these flavor chemicals without major negative consequences on yield, since they are active at way lower levels than sugars and acids. It takes a lot less of a flavor volatile to have a major impact on the taste of a tomato.
There are also subtle differences in cultures. How we use the tomato in our cuisine is critical to the type of tomato that we like.