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Sacrificing taste for looks and availability
February 16, 2015, 4:14 pm

People have a predilection for buying fruit and vegetables that are most visually appealing to them. But, by selecting the ‘perfect’ produce’ year-round, consumers are missing out on a whole lot of things including flavor.

The ingrained preference among consumers for more appealing fruit and vegetables has shaped the global fresh produce industry, with many crops being harvested and stored weeks ahead of their sale in shops.

According to researchers, consumers typically prefer more rounded forms of fruit associating it with ripeness and sweet tastes. But scientists recently discovered that the traditional sweet flavor of tomatoes has been accidentally bred out of mass-produced varieties that are primed to ripen at the same time.

In the US, more than 15 million tons of tomatoes are harvested each year. US researchers have found that the breeding process to produce tomatoes that can be harvested at the same time and turn an even shade of red has inadvertently turned off a key gene, needed during photosynthesis, to produce sugars. This reduction in sugar is found to compromise the flavor of commercial tomatoes.

As taste becomes more of an issue, some supermarkets have now started selling traditionally grown tomatoes.  But even in these varieties the skin needs to be thicker in order to avoid getting bruised during transportation. So major producers have now begun breeding programs to develop the perfect hybrid tomato.

But it is not just flavor and looks that consumers need to be concerned with. One recent study in Appetite journal found the second most important factor, after price, in purchasing specific fresh produce like cherries was shelf life. The date of harvesting has been found to have a clear influence on the shelf life and decay of fruits.

Research into the cold storage of avocados found nutritional compounds and antioxidant activity in early harvested fruit, which had been in storage for 35 days, was much higher than it was in late harvested fruit stored for 21 days. The study concluded that avocados could be harvested earlier for economic benefits without losing nutritional value. However, a study of grapefruit found the opposite to be true. Over 30 percent of grapefruit picked before flowering were found to rot while only 5.5 percent rotted if picked during full bloom.

Also, while scientific techniques have been developed, like pre-chilling on the fields, to maintain more vitamins, it has been found that some vegetables such as spinach can lose 70 percent of vitamins within seven hours of harvest.

While science remains focused on commercial crops, gardeners hope that we will soon see more traditional varieties crossed with modern hybrids that have the flavor but are more disease resistant.

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