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Tomatoes: Plant Facts, History, and Fruit Flavor

Updated on February 1, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

Colorful tomatoes
Colorful tomatoes | Source

A Nutritious Fruit That Often Lacks Flavor

Tomatoes are nutritious and attractive fruits. They were once considered to be poisonous but are now a staple in many meals and dishes. People may not realize how much flavor is missing in today's tomatoes compared to those of the past, however. Our modern breeding techniques have produced a beautiful and firm fruit that travels well and is resistant to many diseases, but its flavor has often been sacrificed.

Researchers have recently discovered thirteen chemicals that contribute to the taste of the most flavorful tomatoes that exist today. They've devised a plan for selectively breeding tomato plants for the genes that code for the chemicals. The goal of these scientists is to return the taste to regular grocery store tomatoes.

Tomatoes are often referred to as a vegetable. Biologically, however, they are a fruit because they contain seeds. Since this is an informational article rather than a culinary one, I use the biology term.

The flowers of a tomato plant
The flowers of a tomato plant | Source

The Nightshade Family

Tomato plants belong to the family Solanaceae, or the nightshade family. They have the scientific name Solanum lycopersicum. Some members of the family are poisonous, but many are edible. Potatoes, eggplants or aubergines, chili peppers, and bell peppers are nightshades. The family also contains ornamental plants, including petunias and Chinese lanterns. The tobacco plant and the deadly nightshade belong to the family Solanaceae as well.

Tomatoes are not always red and they are not always round.
Tomatoes are not always red and they are not always round. | Source

Tomato Plants

The flowers of a tomato plant are yellow. The fruit is classified as a berry. Inside its outer flesh are spaces known as locular cavities. These cavities contain the seeds, which are enclosed in a gelatinous membrane. The plant has compound leaves that consist of smaller leaflets.

The cultivated tomato plant grows as a vine (an indeterminate plant) or a bush (a determinate plant), depending on the variety. Vines can grow very tall and require support from stakes or a cage. They continue to produce fruit throughout the growing season. Bushes are smaller and more compact. They may not need any support. They produce all of their fruit in one short period during the growing season.

Wild tomato plants in the genus Solanum exist. They produce smaller fruits than the cultivated varieties. Some of their fruits are edible and others are poisonous. It's very important that a person doesn't eat a fruit from a plant known as a wild tomato without identifying the species.

Most modern varieties of tomatoes are hybrids. They were created by a cross between two genetically different plants with the goal of combining great features from each one.

Leaves of a tomato plant
Leaves of a tomato plant | Source

Nutritional Highlights

Modern varieties of cultivated tomatoes are a healthy food. Most varieties are deep red or orange red in color due to the presence of a pigment called lycopene. This pigment belongs to the carotenoid family of chemicals. Tomatoes also contain an orange pigment known as beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in our body.

A few years ago, lycopene was touted as a preventer of prostate cancer, especially when the tomatoes containing the chemical were cooked. Newer research suggests that the effect of lycopene on cancer development may not be as strong as was once thought, though the chemical may have a modest benefit. Lycopene may have other health benefits as well, as listed on the Mayo Clinic webpage mentioned in the "References" section below. The clinic states that more research is needed for every health benefit that it describes, however.

Raw tomatoes are a very good source of vitamin C and a good source of vitamin K. (The vitamin C level is reduced when foods are cooked.) The fruits are also a good source of potassium. They contain smaller but still useful amounts of other nutrients.

Choosing and Growing Tomatoes

The wild version of today's grocery store tomatoes is thought to have originated in Peru. It was cultivated in pre-Columbian Mexico. The cultivated plant was probably taken to Europe by Spanish explorers in the early sixteenth century. It was introduced to eastern North America from Europe in the eighteenth century.

Poisonous Fruit

In the sixteenth century, a prominent European herbalist claimed that because cultivated tomato plants belonged to the nightshade family—which had a bad reputation at the time—they must be poisonous. This claim wasn't contested for many years. Tomato plants were used for ornamental purposes, but their fruit wasn't eaten. Even after the fruits began to be used as food, the idea that they were potentially dangerous lingered.

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the tomato was once known as a poison apple because some wealthy Europeans who ate the fruit died. We now know that the people were actually being poisoned by their pewter plates. Poorer people were safe because they couldn't afford the plates. Pewter is an alloy that was originally made of tin and lead. (Today the tin is generally alloyed with other metals instead of lead.) In the case of the unfortunate diners, the acidic juice from the tomatoes leached lead from the plates. As a result, people died from lead poisoning.

A tomato hornworm
A tomato hornworm | Source

Tomato Hornworm Caterpillars

Another interesting event in tomato history happened in the 1830s in New York. Tomatoes in the state were thought to be poisonous due to an infestation of a very large caterpillar known as the tomato hornworm. The insect got its name from its apparent fondness for tomato plants and the blue-black spine or horn at the end of its body. The caterpillar was not only thought to be toxic itself but was also thought to poison tomatoes as it crawled over them.

The tomato hornworm is the larval form of the five-spotted hawkmoth, or Manduca quinquemaculata. Its main food is the leaves of tomato and other nightshade plants, but it may sometimes eat the fruits as well. The larva has an impressive appearance. It reaches three to four inches in length and has a robust body.

The predominantly green color of the larvae and their habit of attaching to the underside of branches help to camouflage them. Still, it's easy to imagine why people in the 1830s were repulsed and even frightened by an infestation of giant caterpillars crawling over their tomato plants. Later in the century it was realized that the larvae were very annoying—as they are today—but not dangerous.

The Indigo Rose tomato was bred by Oregon State University.
The Indigo Rose tomato was bred by Oregon State University. | Source

The Indigo Rose variety of tomato has the darkest fruit of all. The dark purple tomatoes look almost black in the specimens that I've seen. They are rich in pigments called anthocyanins, which have health benefits. According to the botanical garden where I photographed the plant above, the taste of the fruit is reminiscent of plums.

Heirloom or Heritage Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes are becoming popular because they frequently have an enhanced flavor. The definition of heirloom or heritage tomato varies somewhat. In general, the term refers to an old variety that originated at least fifty years ago and sometimes appeared before the Second World War. The plant is pollinated naturally without human intervention, a process known as open pollination. The seeds of the best plants are often passed from one generation of tomato growers to the next.

Heirloom tomatoes have a variety of colors when ripe in addition to red and often have a blotched or striped appearance. They frequently have thin skins instead of thick ones and are therefore more delicate than modern varieties. For many people, the most important difference from modern tomatoes is the improved flavor. This flavor is not automatically present just because a tomato is an heirloom plant, however. Factors such as the composition of the soil in which the plant grew and the freshness of the fruit affect the taste. It's possible that a modern tomato could taste better than a heirloom one.

Heritage tomatoes are generally grown outdoors. This means that in most areas they are only available during the growing season. Even then, they may not be available in a local grocery store. I have to go to my nearest Whole Foods store to find them. They are also more expensive than regular tomatoes. For a special meal, though, they can often be delicious.

Growing Heirloom Plants

Tomatoes that are a color other than red are not necessarily heirloom tomatoes. There are yellow and multicolored versions of modern tomatoes, for example. In addition, heirloom tomatoes may sometimes be red, large, and sturdy instead of smaller and more delicate.

Six Types of Heirloom Tomatoes

Flavor Compounds: Discovery and Application

Researchers from the University of Florida have announced the results of an interesting experiment. They obtained 160 samples from 101 different varieties of tomatoes, which included both modern and heirloom fruits. They then asked a group of people to rate the samples for flavor intensity. Once this was done, the researchers analyzed the tomatoes for the presence of chemical compounds that were responsible for flavor. They found that thirteen compounds were more common in the tastiest tomatoes. In the next step of the investigation, the genes that coded for the tasty chemicals were identified.

The researchers plan to use their new knowledge to guide growers in the selective breeding of crops. The goal is to produce tomatoes containing the tastiest chemicals. The scentists say that there may be some challenges in the process, however. People like their tomatoes to be sweet as well as flavorful. It may be necessary to grow smaller tomatoes in order to meet both of these requirements. In addition, the fruits must maintain enough firmness to prevent them from disintegrating during picking, transport and storage. The researchers say that suitable tomatoes should be available for commercial testing within two years.

A Costoluto Genovese tomato
A Costoluto Genovese tomato | Source

The Costoluto Genovese is an old Italian variety of tomato dating from the nineteenth century. Even though it's an heirloom type, it can grow very large and is classified as a beefsteak tomato (one with a meaty texture). It also has a thicker skin than most heirloom tomatoes. It's said to have a rich flavor.

The Quest for Flavor

The production of new and tasty varieties of tomatoes sounds like a great idea. Hopefully the scientists and growers will be successful in their quest for a better fruit and the final product will be both nutritious and affordable for many people.

There are things that we can do in the present to increase the flavor of tomatoes. Some suggestions are listed below.

  • Look for heirloom tomatoes during the appropriate time of the year. They generally aren't available at supermarkets, at least where I live, but may be available at specialist markets.
  • Try different heirloom tomatoes until you discover the varieties that you like.
  • Note the grower of your favourite types of tomatoes. This information may be available for organic and heirloom tomatoes and for those found in farmers markets. If you like one variety produced by a farmer, you may like the others, too.
  • Eat freshly picked tomatoes (of any type), which generally have a better flavor than older ones.
  • If you don't grow tomatoes yourself, visit a farmers market to see what it offers.
  • Explore the taste of field grown tomatoes compared to that of ones grown in a hothouse.
  • If all you can find is regular grocery store tomatoes, try the different varieties (if they're available) to see which type you prefer.
  • Don't refrigerate tomatoes. While refrigeration makes the fruits last longer, it also weakens their taste.

Brandywine tomatoes are pink in color. They are often considered to be the best tasting of all heirloom varieties.
Brandywine tomatoes are pink in color. They are often considered to be the best tasting of all heirloom varieties. | Source

A Personal Search for Tasty Tomatoes

I buy tomatoes from my local supermarket and produce store, especially in winter, but I enjoy the hunt for better varieties. I visit health food stores and different farmers markets in my search and also receive tomatoes from a kind friend who grows lots of her own fruit.

Flavor makes food enjoyable and is especially important when someone is trying to following a healthy diet. I've found that eating healthy food that is also tasty makes it easier for me to avoid junk food. I don't want to sacrifice nutrition for flavor, though. My ideal tomato is one that is rich in nutrients and also tastes great. Since new varieties of tomatoes continue to become available, my search for the perfect type is probably a never ending process.

References

Why the Tomato Was Feared: Smithsonian Magazine

Lycopene: Mayo Clinic

A Plan to Make Tomatoes Great Again: CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

© 2017 Linda Crampton

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    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 months ago from USA

      I especially enjoyed the historical information here, as I never knew about the poisonous reputation in the past. I do a lot of cooking with tomatoes but will not eat a raw one. Very good article.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 3 months ago from Dubai

      Flavor of the tomatoes is sacrificed to get better disease resistant and firm varieties that are easy to transport. I hope the researchers successfully produce firm disease resistant tomatoes with all the chemicals that add great flavor to make dishes extra delicious. Enjoyed reading and learning about tomatoes, thank you for sharing.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Here's a veggie I cannot tolerate near my food. LOL But it was fun to learn about it...and I love growing them. They seem to complete any garden, don't you think?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit, Flourish. Your comment about not eating a raw tomato and only eating cooked ones is interesting. For me, it's the other way round. I eat cooked tomatoes occasionally, but generally I eat them raw.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Vellur. Like you, I hope the researchers are successful in creating a better tomato. I'm looking forward to seeing what the scientists and growers create.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      It's interesting to hear that you don't like tomatoes, Bill. I like them, especially when they're freshly picked. I'm planning to plant a smaller variety this year. My dogs use most of the garden, but I have a small area where I grow plants.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 3 months ago from Oklahoma

      Grow them yourself and they have flavor, especially a good heirloom.

      I had a bit of botany. I told my wife they're fruit and she called me a liar, lol.

      Great read.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image

      Kaili Bisson 3 months ago from Canada

      Thank you for sharing...this was really informative! I live in the great white north, so we can only get tasteless, imported tomatoes during the winter. There is nothing that beats the taste of a lovely heirloom tomato right off the vine!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Larry. Yes, my favorite type of tomato at the moment is one that has just come off the vine or bush. Thanks for sharing the funny disagreement with your wife!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Kaili. Winter is a problem where I live, too. There's a much wider variety of tomatoes available in summer. I'd love to have tasty tomatoes during the winter. Thank you for the comment.

    • jonnycomelately profile image

      Alan 3 months ago from Tasmania

      Linda, an excellent hub, well-written and informative. Voted up ++

      Thank you.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much! I appreciate your kind comment and vote.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 3 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Your articles are always very informative. Thank you again. We have tomatoes growing everywhere at the moment. They come up spontaneously due to our compost. We grow cherry tomatoes and the Brandywine tomatoes. They are indeed very tasty

    • Penny Sebring profile image

      Penny Sebring 3 months ago from Fort Collins

      What fantastic information. I'm looking forward to more flavorful tomatoes. My favorite way to eat them is sliced with a little balsamic and black pepper sprinkled on them. Mozzarella on the side doesn't hurt either.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Nadine. I would love tomatoes to grow spontaneously in parts of my garden! I am looking forward to eating heirloom tomatoes in the summer very much.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Penny. I appreciate your comment. I love eating tomatoes with cheese. Balsamic vinegar and black pepper sound like great additions, too.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 months ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for these facts about the tomato "fruit." I like it raw but it seems that there is some difference in the nutrients when it is cooked, so for that reason, I eat it cooked too. Thanks especially for the facts under Quest for Flavor.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, MsDora. Thanks for commenting. It does seem like a good idea to eat tomatoes both raw and cooked, for the reason that you mention.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 months ago from England

      How interesting! I sort of remembered about the poisonous reputation but the rest was totally new to me. great article!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Nell. The history of the tomato is interesting to explore. The fruit seems to have produced some strong reactions in the past.

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 3 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Hi Alicia, I see why you have a 96 hub score and mine can't make the grade. Tomatoes or as we in the South call them "maters" have seemingly lost their once great taste. My dad grew some fine tomatoes and we could make a meal eating "mater sandwiches" He planted the Big Boy variety and others but with they always had a wonderful flavor and were best when good and ripe with the juice having a reddish tint. Of course Dukes mayonnaise always made them better. He also liked the yellow tomatoes which were less acidic. Then there were the tommy toes or cherry-grape tomatoes we see in salad bars today. Fried green tomatoes have recently become favorites as an appetizer in some local restaurants, wonder if the movie had anything to do with that. Great hub now I'm hungry!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Fiddleman. Scores are a bit of a mystery! I like the term "mater sandwiches". I'm going to start using it. Thanks for the comment and for sharing the interesting information.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Linda, I love your hubs. I'm always a little smarter after I read them. :-) We used to grow tomatoes in the country when I was a little girl...my father had so many plants. Tomatoes, tomatoes everywhere. I have to confess I couldn't eat another one until years later. Now I love them. Thanks so much for this interesting article.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the kind and funny comment, Genna. It's good to hear that your interest in tomatoes has returned. I think they're an enjoyable addition to meals.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 3 months ago from South Africa

      Very interesting hub about tomatoes. I'm going to add a link to my hub about tomato craving. That worm will give me the creeps!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Martie. Thank you very much for the comment and the link. I think that tomato hornworms are interesting animals, but I would certainly be disturbed if I saw lots of them on my plants!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 months ago from San Diego California

      Awesome summary of all things tomato. I particularly liked the hornworm. My wife found one in our backyard once, even though we don't grow tomatoes. Instead of being scary, it was absolutely friendly. She was carrying it around in her hand for a while, something I would never do, because I don't like bugs! They turn into beautiful moths that resemble hummingbirds the way they buzz around flowers. They used to fly into a guard shack I worked in around evening time, and I would catch them in a plastic cup and let them back outside.

      I hope they can produce a tastier tomato. My grandma used to grow her own, and they were delicious. Great hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I love the story about your wife and the friendly hornworm, Mel, as well as your tale about the moths! It's great to hear about insects treated with respect. Thank you very much for the visit.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 months ago

      The tomato is my favorite fruit. I think I eat it almost every day. I learned something new about refrigeration and flavor. Guess I will be keeping them on my counter from now on.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Dianna. I enjoy eating tomatoes, too, though I don't eat them every day. They are certainly a useful fruit. Thanks for the visit.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 3 months ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Linda. Great hub. We grow a couple of different varieties every summer and love the flavor we get from growing them ourselves. It was interesting to hear about the history and a few varieties that I had not heard of. Great job.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. Thank you very much for the comment. I'm looking forward to growing tomatoes this summer!

    • Jason Matthews profile image

      Jason Matthews 3 months ago from North Carolina

      My wife has always hated tomatoes, but recently she has learned to make Pico de gallo, which we both very much enjoy. I agree that tomatoes are a healthy option and I'm glad that we've found a way to enjoy them together! Thanks again for your insights!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I don't think I've ever tried Pico de gallo, but I will now that you've given me the idea! Thanks for the comment, Jason.

    • profile image

      ValKaras 2 months ago

      Linda---Another great and informative hub. Juicy too, because I love tomatoes and these good photos reminded me of that refreshing part of my dinner today.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Val. I had tomatoes in my lunch today, although they weren't especially tasty. I'm looking forward to a wider variety to choose from this summer.

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      Grand Old Lady 4 weeks ago

      What an interesting article about the tomato. It is not easy to go into scientific terms and aspects about the tomato and still keep the reader interested, but your articles flow so well:). It also leaves me curious what a truly flavorful tomato must taste like.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I appreciate your comment very much, Grand Old Lady. Some tomatoes can be delicious compared to the usual varieties. I enjoy searching for the tasty ones.

    • Tamara Moore profile image

      Tamara Yancosky Moore 8 days ago

      I love tomatoes, and there is nothing better than when they are home-grown. Great article!

      Hugs,

      Tamara

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Tamara. I agree—tomatoes grown at home and freshly picked are delicious!

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