Finally! A way to return flavor to bland tomatoes

Scientists have discovered a rare gene that could help "make tomatoes great again"... or at least taste less bland.

When one starts typing the phrase "Tomatoes taste like…", in Google, the six most common auto-complete suggestions are "blood," "dirt," "fish," "pumpkin," "chlorine" and "wet dog."

If you, too, have ever lamented tasting wet dog (or, uh, blood) as you've bitten into a store-bought tomato-and-cheese sandwich for lunch, you may be in luck.

On Monday, scientists introduced a rare version of a gene that promises to make store-bought tomatoes taste more edible in a report published in Nature Genetics.

Tomato breeders usually sacrifice the flavor of their batches for the sake of production, opting to instead breed larger fruits in higher quantities with longer shelf lives.

A team of researchers (perhaps after hearing such "wet dog" and "dirt" complaints) gathered genetic information from 725 wild tomatoes and constructed a "pan-genome," or a genome with information from all 725 tomatoes.

We're a step closer now to tasty, terrific tomatoes!

They compared the pan-genome with the genome of a domesticated tomato named "Heinz 1706," which has functioned as the base tomato genome until now. Through the comparison, they discovered that only 2 percent of the domesticated tomatoes sold in stores (like Heinz) contain a flavorful gene present in 90 percent of wild tomatoes.

The gene uses carotenoids — or the pigments that give vegetables like tomatoes, carrots and corn their distinctive colors — to give tomatoes their tangy flavor.

Taste aside, it also allows breeders to develop tomatoes with a genetic resistance to diseases currently addressed through pesticides and other cost-intensive and environmentally unfriendly measures, the study's co-leader James Giovannoni said.

Giovanni hopes to see more breeders including the tasty gene in their future tomato rearing processes, he said.

"How many times do you hear someone say that tomatoes from the store just don't quite measure up to heirloom varieties?" Clifford Weil, program director of the National Science Foundation's Plant Genome Research Program that supported the work, asked.

"This study gets to why that might be the case and shows that better tasting tomatoes appear to be on their way back."

Ancient foods are good for you

A showplace for unique and old flora

About an hour's drive from the Austrian capital of Vienna lies the picturesque village of Schiltern. It is here that ARCHE NOAH, or Noah's Ark, decided to plant a garden where visitors can admire and taste heirloom crops. Started in 1990, the association wants to preserve crop diversity and redevelop old varieties by encouraging people to grow and eat them.

Ancient foods are good for you

Red, white and brown all over

Due to globalization and the industrialization of agriculture during the last century, the diversity of cultivated plants has plummeted. ARCHE NOAH estimates that we've already lost more than 75 percent of what once grew. These strikingly bright beets called Erfurt longs are the descendants of some of the earliest beets that were white and which have been farmed since the 8th century B.C.

Ancient foods are good for you

Growing the range of diversity

ARCHE NOAH estimates that out of the 4,800 known crop species worldwide, about 100 varieties make up 90 percent of all harvested food. With this in mind the group collects varieties of plants from all over the world in its mission to preserve biodiversity — they already have more 620 different types of tomatoes and here are a few examples.

Ancient foods are good for you

Picking a pack of Russian cucumbers

One of the biggest threats to crop diversity is the growing influence of seed monopolies and continuing genetic engineering. The Russian cucumber first appeared in Europe at the end of the 19th century. It develops a dark brown, corky and cracked skin when fully ripe. The plant is robust, holds up well in the cold and its fruit thrives in temperate climates without a greenhouse.

Ancient foods are good for you

Building a closer relationship

Making consumers yearn for more plant biodiversity is also a goal of ARCHE NOAH — and one easily done in the foundation's kitchen where sumptuous meals are prepared. This colorful example shows some of the possibilities that the heirloom garden offers and may encourage some people to renew their relationship with plants and think more about what lands on their plates.

Ancient foods are good for you

A sweet but long-forgotten treat

For centuries food was very local and crops spread slowly. The sugar root was known in ancient times and was a popular root vegetable during the Renaissance. But in Central Europe, higher-yielding vegetables such as potatoes replaced it by around the 16th century. The sweet, white roots grow in clusters and are a delight for food connoisseurs.

Ancient foods are good for you

Working on the inside and the outside

Since small-scale farming is on the decline, the group not only wants to preserve old and rare varieties of fruits and vegetables, but also hopes to improve and develop them further. Take these Bernstein red beets: Here the aim was to preserve the "traditional" look while working on the sweet, balanced taste and the form.

Ancient foods are good for you

Food to the rescue once again

This type of sorrel originally comes from the mountains of Europe and Southwest Asia. Since Roman times it has been cultivated as "Herba romana." The leafy plant is full of vitamin C and ideal for seasoning. Having a bigger basket of fruits and vegetables to choose from can be a way to guard against new diseases or climate change, believes ARCHE NOAH.