Have you ever wondered why the tomatoes in your salad taste as bland as cardboard (yes even the Taste the Difference one)? That’s because they actually lack the stuff that adds taste and flavour, a recent study has discovered.

For many decades, tomatoes have been extensively and selectively cross-bred for developing new cultivars that producing larger fruit, with uniform red colour,disease resistance and a longer shelf-life. In this process, the modern commercial tomato varieties have lost the genes responsible for expression of flavour and taste.

A study by Dr. Harry Klee and his team from the University of Florida, has shown that low sugar content and lack of some volatile compounds is the chemical reason behind commercial tomato varieties being tasteless. In order to understand the genetic link, Klee and his team put together chemical profiles of commercial and heirloom varieties, and conducted taste tests to rate the intensity of their flavours, sweetness and sourness.

The right mix of sugars and volatile compounds is essential to bring out the flavours in a tomato. Sugars and acids present in the fruit interact with taste receptors while volatile compounds interact with olfactory senses, and combined together they contribute to the signature tomato taste. When compared to heirloom varieties, the commercial varieties had smaller quantities of sugars and acids and lacked many volatile compounds. Thirteen flavour enhancing volatile chemicals were identified by the scientists, many of which were missing in the commercial tomato varieties.

Besides chemical profiling, using gene-mapping techniques, researchers have identified alleles responsible for giving the tomato its sweet-tangy flavour. Alleles are variants of genes that represent specific characters like shape, colour, size or taste of the tomato fruit. The dominant allele gets selected and is expressed. As expected, the commercial varieties were missing the right set of alleles needed to make tomatoes tasty.

Now that the scientists know the chemical recipe required to make a tomato taste good, they believe by replacing the untasty alleles with their tasty counterparts, commercial variety of tomatoes can be made flavoursome again. Hopefully soon, we will be able to savour Bloody Marys with a new piquant flavour.