For years, higher yields and faster growth — not taste, smell and appearance — have driven plant breeding. A group of UF researchers is looking to put consumers first again.
By Ron Word and Styliana Resvanis (3JM)
Picture this: a single, vibrant red rose whose sight and smell are as captivating as an entire garden. Taste this: a ripe tomato that is just as sweet as it is juicy. Soon, thanks to a group of UF researchers, you won’t have to choose between sight, smell and taste of produce — you can have it all.
These scientists, who are from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, are tailoring plants and vegetables to fit consumer and market demand. They are part of a 10-person multi-disciplinary body, the Plant Innovation Group, whose members are testing consumer preferences and designing products to meet grower, wholesaler and customer expectations.
In the Plant Innovation Group’s work, it’s consumer panels who are driving the research, not growers and breeders. The team hopes to soon work with entrepreneurs and marketing officials to bring these products to market, develop new agricultural goods and commercialize them.
They are partnering with Moskowitz Jacobs Inc., a White Plains, N.Y., strategic brands development, research and consulting firm, to help it develop and promote its products.
The concept created by the Plant Innovation Group is known as consumer-assisted selection. The five-step process begins with market analysis, research and development, production, distribution and ends with sales and marketing.
The group, which meets monthly, includes experts in plant genetics, food science, sales and marketing. One of the members, UF professor Linda Bartoshuk, is a dentist who studies taste. She has developed a scaling system to determine how much a consumer panel “likes” a product.
One of the group’s goals is to make products that people want before they know they want them — think cell phones with cameras.
Charlie Sims, a food science professor, is in charge of the Sensory Testing Lab, where consumers conduct tests regarding color and fragrance of flowers and flavor and nutrition of fruits and vegetables.
David Clark, an environmental horticulture professor, calls the group “a faculty brain trust.”
Toward Tastier Tomatoes
For Harry Klee, a professor in the horticultural sciences department in the plant molecular cellular biology program, it has been a 16-year odyssey to cultivate a better-tasting tomato for commercial growers.
Most people agree that the tomatoes on sale at grocery stores cannot rival those you can pluck off the vine in your backyard or purchase at a farmers market.
“The tomatoes you buy in the supermarket are terrible and most of them come from Florida,” says Klee, noting tomatoes embody the No. 1 complaint in supermarket produce department.
They represent a $619 million market for Florida farmers and about a third of the total value of all fresh vegetables produced in the state each year.
Klee’s work has focused on the chemical and genetic makeup of flavor in fruits and vegetables — primarily in tomatoes — while other UF researchers are looking at producing better strawberries and blueberries, two of Florida’s most important agricultural products.
Writer Barry Estabrook decries the problems with tomatoes in his new book, “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.”
“People see these beautiful, flawless bright red tomatoes, and they don’t go through the thought process: wait a second, those look nice, but they don’t taste like anything. It’s odd,” Estabrook said in a June interview with Salon.com.
Klee knows why tomatoes don’t taste as good as they could. When breeders were creating round, plump, disease resistant-tomatoes, which produced good yields, flavor wasn’t part of the equation. Growers get paid for every pound they produce, regardless of taste.
“Breeders have not deliberately set out to grow a tomato that has no flavor,” Klee says. “But they have diluted out the good stuff and given you more and more of these bags of water.”
To make the fruit taste like it was grown in your garden, Klee and other researchers are working with wild relatives of cultivated tomatoes, known as heirlooms.
Klee and company have investigated about 180 different varieties of tomatoes, doing a chemical and genetic profile on each one of them and then asking a consumer research panel to determine the ones with the best taste.
“The ultimate goal is to identify the genes that control synthesis of the flavor volatiles (chemicals that readily vaporize) and use this knowledge to produce a better-tasting tomato,” Klee says.
An issue, however, is that everybody’s tastes are different and not everyone agrees what constitutes the perfect fruit.
Most of the tomatoes grown in Florida end up in restaurants as garnish to a hamburger or chopped up in a salad. Florida growers supply about a third of the nation’s tomatoes. California and Mexico are also big producers.
A tastier tomato could boost profits for grocers and improve people’s diets by giving them more-appealing varieties of fruits and vegetables, which could help fight obesity.
“If something tastes better, people will eat more of it. Maybe kids will want some fruit instead of a Twinkie,” Klee says.
A medium-size tomato contains 40 percent of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C and 20 percent for vitamin A, according to the Florida Tomato Board. They are also low in fat and sodium and contain an antioxidant lycopene.
It could be years before researchers produce the ultimate fruits and vegetables, but Klee predicts that higher quality tomatoes may reach the supermarket shelves in about two years.
“We can create tomatoes in the interim that taste really good,” he says.
There is a similar problem when it comes to roses. Years of breeding to produce beautiful blooms have robbed roses of their scent.
“Most of the rose varieties on the market don’t have fragrances,” says Clark.
Clark and other researchers are looking for ways to infuse scents back into flowers through genetic engineering or developing chemical formulations to spray on fragrance.
Flowers are a $32.5 billion a year business in the United States. About 40,000 boxes of blooms arrive daily at the Miami International Airport, representing about two-thirds of the flowers consumed in the United States.
UF and IFAS researchers are also working to improve citrus and table grapes. Russell Rouseff, a professor at the Citrus Research and Education Center, is trying to boost the flavor of orange juice and Fred Gmitter (PHD ’85) is working on improving oranges, while Jim Olmstead is attempting to breed tastier blueberries.
Clark and Klee see a bright future for Florida agriculture.
“It’s all about integrating food testing with expertise on human senses and the human brain, and putting them in one box,” Clark says. “We’ll find out what people want and make that.”