January 28, 2013

201 Winter Tomatoes [28 January 2013]

Tomatoes are the second most popular vegetable in the USA (and probably in Canada too) after lettuce. Tomatoes are also the vegetable we most like to complain about, at least during the winter. While they might look attractive, commercial tomatoes taste nothing like those picked fresh from our summer garden.

There are reasons for winter tomatoes’ lack of taste (and several reasons besides taste to avoid them). Most commercial table tomatoes for the USA winter market are grown in Florida. There they are picked while still hard and green and are later gassed with ethylene in the warehouse to ripen. So they look red and pretty, but the taste is unsatisfactory to say the least.

The problems with commercial winter tomatoes go far beyond taste. To withstand being shipped great distances they are bred for the hardiness of the fruit, not for its nutritional content. USDA tests show that modern tomatoes contain 30% less vitamin C, 30% less thiamin (B1), 19% less niacin (B3) and 62% less calcium than tomatoes tested in the 1960’s. (Actually I was surprised that their nutrient content was even this good.) One mineral that actually increased is sodium – by a whopping 1400%. Another reason, besides breeding, for the lower nutrient content is the low soil fertility in Florida which requires high amounts of chemical fertilizer. The problem with commercial fertilizer is that it contains only the macronutrients required to improve yield while ignoring trace minerals (like selenium) which improve the nutritional value but are invisible to shoppers and do not add to the price the farmer can get for his crop.

The other problem with Florida for growing tomatoes is the humidity which promotes fungal diseases and insect pests, all of which require very high amounts of more than 100 different pesticides, some of which remain on or in the fruit.

Vine-ripened locally grown greenhouse tomatoes should be somewhat better on several counts (besides tasting better) – natural ripening, lower use of pesticides, possibly more nutritious varieties, and possibly better micronutrient fertilization. Well worth the extra price, in my humble opinion.

Source: Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, 2011, by investigative food journalist Barry Estabrook.

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