There is the sound of roll-down windows thwapping closed after the tomato wedges are passed through in tiny plastic cups. All goes silent as a group of 10 tasters contemplate. Do they like this one? Is it sweet? Salty? Sour? Bitter? Or that magical unicorn of tastes: umami?
We're in the University of Florida's sensory lab. Volunteer tasters, some students, some university staffers, use software that runs the Hedonic General Labeled Magnitude Scale, which sounds intimidatingly technical. The question, though, is not.
Do these tomatoes taste good?
How many old-timers have you heard say, "They don't grow tomatoes like they used to"? This isn't just cranky nostalgia. They're right. Tomatoes have been bred to be disease-resistant, easily transportable and have a long shelf life. Flavor isn't at the top of the priority list for growers, distributors and grocers.
So, how do we get flavor back?
Scientists at University of Florida are gunning to change all that. But it's not just a plant geneticist, toiling away in his lab. This is panel of taste-testers who meet once a year, with the goal of discovering a perfect tomato, coupled with an interdisciplinary group of all-stars.
It's the academic equivalent of the Justice League.
University of Florida
• • •
Tomato titan: Linda Bartoshuk
Stats: Internationally known psychologist. Supertaster expert.
Specialities: taste and smell.
• • •
"You can lose a tremendous amount of taste and the brain compensates," Bartoshuk says from behind the desk in her book-jammed office in UF's Food Science and Human Nutrition building.
Bartoshuk went to Carleton College in Minnesota and pursued her doctorate at Brown University, pushing her way into a lab she says did not accept women at the time. She studied thalamus and hypothalamus connections in rats and soon became interested in taste.
She had questions about how we measure sensations. You ask someone how much pain they are in, one to 10. But you don't know what their 10 is. Is their 10 as intense as your 10? And then when measuring tastes: Is their most intense taste as intense as, say, the loudest sound they've ever heard or the happiest experience they've ever had?
And then, she adds, there's a big difference between taste and smell.
"Nature gives us taste to solve nutritional problems," she says. "The brain is wired to like fat and calories. A baby will hate poison and seek to nurse. We are trained to dislike what makes us sick."
Smell is more nuanced than that. It takes more conditioning to hate a smell.
Some years into her 36 on the faculty at Yale University, Bartoshuk began suspecting that some people taste more intensely than others. She called them supertasters, a term she published first in 1990. She had people touch their tongues to paper coated with a chemical called propylthiouracil. Some tasters found it intolerably bitter while others tasted nothing.
She started counting taste buds on people's tongues. More taste buds, she found, meant people experienced taste more intensely. About 15 percent of the population, more women than men, are supertasters.
Supertasters and nontasters, they've all got strong opinions about tomatoes.
University of Florida
• • •
Tomato titan: Harry Klee
Stats: professor, horticultural scientist; invented tomato species including the Garden Gem.
Specialties: understanding flavor in fruits and vegetables.
• • •
Campus. Morning. En route from Klee's lab to the tasting panel.
The researchers have returned from their experimental field in Live Oak. Thirty rows, 2,000 plants — picking takes all day and it's all hands on deck.
This has been going on for nearly a decade. Once Bartoshuk arrived at UF in 2007, Klee reached out to collaborate on a tomato study. He would do the planting, she would do the taste testing.
Tomatoes are complicated because it's not just about getting a balance of sweet or tart. There are 400 volatiles, or aroma chemicals, that can contribute to good- or bad-tasting tomatoes.
"We can outdo nature by picking volatiles," Bartoshuk concludes.
The researchers bring the tomatoes back to Klee's lab from the field and process them, measuring each variety for its aroma compounds, sugar and acids, as well as scooping seeds to dry and preserve for the next generation. After that, 25 or 30 of each kind come to the sensory lab for the tasting panel. This year's tasting panel, on June 29, was later than usual.
"We've had a lot of rainy days and no sunshine, and a lot of the tomatoes split because of the rain," research assistant professor Denise Tieman says. Her fingers are crossed about several of the tomatoes to be tasted, many of them yet without names.
"I'm hopeful about 86 and 94, and I'm not sure about 113."
Sixty-six tasters shuffle through the tasting panel, each tasting six tomato samples one at a time. A team of undergraduate research assistants vigilantly keep the numbers straight, randomizing them on the trays so everyone is tasting tomatoes in a different order.
The survey asks tasters' age, weight, height, ethnicity. It asks whether they've ever suffered ear infections, head injuries or tonsillectomies, all things that can permanently affect sense of taste. It asks about texture (with a mealy texture, even a good-tasting tomato gets low marks) as well as about overall likability. Data from the panels has shown that young people like tomatoes sweeter, older folks enjoy richer volatiles and Hispanics like tomatoes a little more acidic.
You say toMAto, I say toMAHto.
University of Florida
• • •
Tomato titan: Charlie Sims
Stats: teaches quality control and sensory analysis.
Specialties: the sensory characteristics of food — how they feel, smell and taste.
• • •
Sims is the godfather of the tasting panel.
He runs three or four tests per week in the sensory lab, the spring his busiest time because of Florida strawberries and blueberries. He worked on wine grapes when he did his Ph.D. at Arkansas, and every summer he takes 20 students to Sicily, Venice, Bologna, Rome and elsewhere to study food science and nutrition.
About a decade ago, he tested the Tasti-Lee tomato for another UF colleague. Publix and Costco embraced the Tasti-Lee, but the rest of the industry decided it was too small and soft.
Back to the drawing board.
One day, Sims may be testing for Bacardi rums, the next day it's Jiffy muffin mixes. (Jiffy took the lard out, and Sims' panels determined there was no significant difference in taste.) He works with a number of plant breeding groups at the university: tomatoes, peaches, strawberries, blueberries, olives, hops and the 900-pound gorilla, citrus. Juice from trees that show greening, he says, doesn't taste as good.
He's looked at 80 to 100 kinds of tomatoes.
"There's consistency if you ask how sweet they think a sample is, but very little consistency if you ask 'How much do you like it?' What's driving that liking?"
That said, once the day's tomato panel has been tabulated, there is consensus. Garden Gem wins with an average score of 26.44, and one of Klee's new unnamed hybrids came in second at 26.11. Tieman's hopes for 86 and 94 were dashed. But because of the lab tests for volatiles, sugar and acids, the scientists know precisely what about these tomatoes tasted good.
The stakes are high. Tomatoes are a $2 billion industry in the United States, and Florida's share of that is shrinking. If UF scientists can unlock the mystery of great taste, there's a chance to capture more of that market.
• • •
Klee's office is overflowing with tomato gifts — posters, paintings, even needlepoint pillows. It's the way your aunt's ceramic chicken collection got out of hand.
Klee started at Monsanto in St. Louis and helped to develop herbicide-resistant crop technology. UF advertised an endowed chair working on tomatoes, and Klee left Monsanto in 1994 as it was releasing its first product.
"I got here in 1995 and was working on the regulation of ripening of tomatoes, doing fundamental science. I thought it would be cool to work on flavor, but logistically our project is a nightmare."
Breeders have developed higher-yielding crops since World War II — yield has gone up 300 percent — and concurrently we've seen a dilution of nutritional density and flavor. Tomatoes are bred to be planted more densely and each plant produces more fruit. In addition, Klee sees increased tomato size as a problem.
"For tomatoes, why is bigger better? It's for food service, so a slice is the circumference of a hamburger. I'm sympathetic to farmers, they're doing it to make money. What's the biggest cost? Labor. It takes the same amount of time to pick a big or small tomato."
Klee's better-tasting-tomato work has two projects in parallel.
One is the commercial market, a hard nut to crack because, unlike for the backyard gardener, good taste is lower on the priority list. But Klee and his lab have studied the genes of 400 types of tomatoes. He thinks he can fix the taste of commercial tomatoes without impacting yield and other factors.
With his breeding work, Sims' panels and Bartoshuk's taste scale, feedback from people who have grown his seeds may be the final key.
"It's citizen science," Klee says.
And then, there's the fact that people will pay for good tomatoes. Even if they have to grow them.
Klee decided to set up a system whereby people can make a $10 donation to research and he sends them two packets of seeds.
"An article about this crashed the UF system when we got 1,000 requests in one day," he says. "If a tomato can grow in Florida, it can grow anywhere."
They've sent seeds out to more than 10,000 people in all 50 states and 38 countries.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.