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Florida Tomatoes Worth Asking For, New UF Taste Tests Show

Chris Eversole
Cindy Spence

Dan Cantliffe (352) 392-1928, ext. 203

GAINESVILLE — Tomato lovers who wonder how to find luscious winter tomatoes — ripe, red, firm but juicy, sweet but tangy — might well ask their grocer whether he’s selling Mexican tomatoes or tomatoes grown in Florida.

University of Florida researcher Dan Cantliffe says it makes a big difference.

Cantliffe, chairman of horticultural sciences with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, bases his recommendations on UF tomato taste tests that were presented to academic conferences in Florida and California.

Florida-grown tomatoes were the runaway winners in a set of tests in which 35 UF employees familiar with tomato taste repeatedly compared the type of tomatoes generally grown in Mexico and varieties typically grown in Florida. “The Florida varieties came out better for sweetness and overall taste in all of the taste panels we conducted over four years,” Cantliffe said. “Our findings were well accepted when we presented them to our peers.”

The UF findings were backed up by tests the University of Georgia researchers conducted with 100 supermarket shoppers. “The shoppers showed a clear preference for the type of tomatoes grown in the South,” Cantliffe said.

Florida tomatoes are more pleasing to the nose too. They contain more of the chemical substance affecting aroma, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture tests conducted in cooperation with UF. “The aroma makes a big difference in how people perceive taste,” Cantliffe said. “When you have a stuffy nose, your food tastes like sawdust.”

The researchers decided to compare imported and Florida-grown tomato varieties because Mexican tomatoes have flooded the U.S. market since the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, went into effect in 1994.

Mexican tomatoes are popular with supermarkets because they’re cheap at wholesale and can be labeled vine-ripe. But the vine-ripe label is bogus, Cantliffe said.

“They’re called vine-ripe because they can be picked pink,” he said. “The problem is they never really ripen because they’ve been bred with a gene that delays ripening, enabling them to be shipped long distances.

“But the gene prevents them from developing full flavor,” Cantliffe said. “How can a tomato be vine-ripe if it never fully ripens?”

Most Florida tomatoes aren’t labeled vine-ripe because they’re harvested at what is known as a “mature-green” state — a practice that allows growers to pick them fewer times and reduces bruising. Packinghouses expose them to ethylene gas, a hormone that tomatoes produce naturally that enhances the ripening process.

Florida tomato growers must be careful to provide consistent quality to wholesale buyers if they expect to get a premium for their product, the UF research showed.

A key to consistency is culling out tomatoes that were picked too early, Cantliffe said.

Tomatoes that have not turned red after three days in the ripening room should not be sold to supermarkets, another set of UF tests showed.

Those tests, conducted with 20 UF faculty and graduate students familiar with tomato taste, were reported in the November issue of the Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science. “If a tomato doesn’t ripen after three days in the ripening room, it was picked too soon,” Cantliffe said.

Representatives of the Florida tomato industry welcomed the UF research. “We’ve been fighting for survival since NAFTA,” said Wayne Hawkins, manager of the Orlando-based Florida Tomato Committee. “We now have scientific data showing that our product is better.”

Although Hawkins is confident “mature-green” tomatoes that have been properly ripened can taste every bit as good as vine-ripes, the tomato committee this year authorized growers to pack vine-ripe tomatoes in the field.

Growers have responded by picking about 5 percent of their crop in the field, Hawkins said. “The wholesale prices for field-packed tomatoes are averaging about $2 more for a 25-pound box,” Hawkins said. “This provides extra cash to the grower and allows him to compete with tomatoes from Mexico that are sold as vine-ripe.”

“It’s all a matter of perception.”