The Chemistry of the Tastiest Tomato

The Chemistry of the Tastiest Tomato

examples of different tomato varieties

Here in southeastern Ontario, we are knee-deep in our growing season, and vegetables and fruits of all kinds are coming in fast and furious. This includes our many varieties of tomatoes, each one tasting of sunshine and cool breezes, and nothing at all like the miserable pink disks of sadness one can find sliced on a burger in the depths of January!

Now I admit to a bit of poetic license in the previous paragraph: I don’t actually know what chemical combos go into making summer tomatoes the best-tasting things on earth. But a team of scientists from the University of Tsukuba does – and they’ve let the public know they’ve found a scientific basis for determining the tastiest tomato varietals! The results might not be what you’d expect.

It turns out that heirloom-type tomatoes with greener or underripe-looking bits tend to be scientifically sweeter than pure, deep red varieties. This involves the complicated interrelationships of the pigment molecules inside the fruits.

“The pigment molecules in tomatoes are called carotenoids and are usually red, yellow, or orange, [team leader Professor Miyako] Kusano says. These compounds don’t have a flavor. However, the carotenoids degrade into compounds called apocarotenoids, which do. […]

The team measured amounts of chlorophyll, responsible for green color, and prolycopene, a type of carotenoid that makes tomatoes orange. Overall, tomato varieties with high amounts of chlorophyll also had higher sugar content. Tomatoes with a lot of prolycopene had higher amounts of the volatile compound 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one, which is partly responsible for that distinct sweet-tomato smell and can also affect flavor. Taking all these chemical components into consideration, the researchers concluded that the tastiest tomatoes strike a balance between chlorophyll and prolycopene content, and aren’t necessarily the ripest ones.”

Interestingly, the team relied entirely on their data when making their analysis (recommending Maglia Rosa cherry tomatoes and Aiko grape tomatoes as paragons of that sweet/fragrant balance) without physically tasting their subjects. I wonder if the subjectivity of taste would skew the results – or simply make them more human?