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New Crimson Tomato Has Health Benefits

Cindy Spence

Jay Scott (941) 751-7636

inspecting crimson tomatoes
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BRADENTON—The redder the better, when it comes to tomatoes, says a University of Florida researcher.

Horticulturist Jay Scott is breeding new varieties of tomatoes that contain a crimson gene, which gives tomatoes a deeper red color. More importantly, however, the gene also increases tomatoes’ levels of lycopene, a substance recently shown to have health benefits.

Scott has been working on tomatoes since 1975 and with the crimson gene since 1981, releasing a home garden crimson tomato in 1985. Most of Scott’s efforts have focused on breeding tomatoes for disease resistance, taste and long shelf life.

But in 1990, after early studies showed health benefits in lycopene, Scott began to use the crimson gene to develop high-lycopene tomatoes for commercial growers.

“The crimson gene has been around a long time, but commercially, there is no acreage planted in crimson tomatoes,” said Scott, who grows his tomatoes in Bradenton at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, a part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “For years, the crimson gene has been a side issue.

“Now, recent studies show that lycopene is a potent anti-oxidant, and tomatoes are the major source of lycopene,” Scott said.

A crimson tomato is 50 percent higher in lycopene than a regular tomato, Scott said. Breeding for higher lycopene by using the crimson gene decreases beta carotene levels. But clinical dietitian Mary Branagan, of Shands Hospital at UF, points out that there are many sources of beta carotene in the diet but lycopene is only available from three foods: pink grapefruit, watermelon and tomatoes.

Branagan said crimson tomatoes fall into a new category of foods called functional foods, which provide health benefits. She said studies are finding that the lycopene in tomatoes is beneficial in reducing risks of heart disease and some cancers. High-lycopene tomatoes also have anti-oxidant properties.

Processing high-lycopene tomatoes for sauces and juices adds to their health benefits, unlike some vegetables that lose vitamins and minerals when cooked, Scott said.

“Processing boils off water, so a more concentrated product comes out with more lycopene per unit than with a fresh-cut tomato,” Scott said. “High-lycopene tomatoes are good if you eat fresh tomatoes and even better if you eat processed tomatoes.”

As a tomato breeder, Scott said, producing a high-lycopene tomato is a challenge because the health benefits alone are not enough. The new tomato must grow well and taste good. He said the crimson tomatoes will be aimed at the premium tomato market and should give Florida tomato growers another marketing tool.

“We’re trying to put the health benefits together with good flavor and high eating quality,” Scott said. “It’s one thing to give consumers a nutritious product, but they won’t necessarily eat it unless they like it.

“The trick is to get the flavor and the high lycopene together in a tomato consumers will enjoy eating.”