Regardless of how you pronounce it, or whether you consider it a fruit or a vegetable, there is no denying that tomatoes are a staple in cuisines around the world. From ketchup to pasta sauce, or even fresh with just salt and pepper, tomatoes have a multitude of ways they can be consumed. Because they’re so ubiquitous, you might be surprised to know that the tomato originated in South America from the area between Ecuador and Chile, and it wasn’t imported to Europe until the mid-1500s.
Even more surprising is that because tomatoes are a nightshade, they were considered to be poisonous for most of history. They were grown for ornamental purposes and actually weren’t used for food until the 18th century. In fact, India’s Ayurvedic tradition still considers tomatoes and most nightshades to be aggravating and warn against consuming them in large amounts. It’s pretty impressive that they went from inedible to the most consumed fruit in the world, basically overnight.
In our modern day world, tomatoes are grown in a multitude of different countries. The top growers are China, India, Turkey, and the USA, although at least a dozen other countries commercially produce them as well.
In the U.S, the top producing states are California, Florida, and Indiana. Even though they are grown in every state, you can see from the graph below that California outproduces them by a huge amount. Like most produce in the country, the amount imported has been increasing over time. The last full year with data from the USDA shows 2.6 billion pounds of fresh tomatoes imported in 2009, up from 1.6 billion just 10 years earlier. About 80% of these imports come from Mexico. Mexico has also been a leading importer to the U.S. for processed tomatoes, however the amount coming from China has been steadily increasing, and they became the leading importer by volume in 2007.
Standards & Grading
In the U.S, tomato standards and grading are governed by the USDA. They have a separate set of standards for greenhouse tomatoes and variety of different types of processed tomato products. There are also international grading standards for tomatoes, and it is common for countries to have their own. You can even take a look at this set from India. Most of these standards use similar characteristics to grade tomatoes, including size, cleanliness, maturity, damage, shape, etc. In the US, having produce graded is voluntary and the cost is often born by the farmer or distributor. Retailers and restaurants use these grades to make purchasing decisions. Higher grades will naturally fetch a higher price, and certain grades may be allocated to specific markets.
In addition to creating standards, a little known practice that the USDA undertakes is creating marketing orders. Unlike getting produce graded, marketing orders are a mandatory program. They require minimum quality standards regarding appearance in order for a produce item to be sold fresh. Anything not meeting the standards must go into processed items or be considered waste.
There is a marketing order for Florida Tomatoes from October 10 – June 15 each year. In order to be sold fresh, these tomatoes are required to be grade 2, and at least 2 9/32 inches in diameter. It is estimated that up to 40% of tomatoes harvested do not meet the marketing order and cannot be sold as fresh tomatoes. If you’re unfamiliar with marketing orders, you’re not alone. I’ll go more in-depth in a later post, but do know that marketing orders are controversial, especially with the increasing amount of imports in the market. They apply only to produce grown in the U.S. and often a specific state, which can give imports a competitive edge in the market.
Fraud is often not on the radar of consumers when it comes to food, but it is becoming increasingly important in a globalized economy. Your food is much more likely to pass through the hands of multiple growers, brokers, processors, and distributors today than it was just a few decades ago. The higher amount of travel distance and transfer points introduce vulnerable points in the supply chain, where mislabeling, additions, or other types of fraud can be introduced.
There are currently allegations that Italian canned tomatoes sold by Cento are not really from the Marzano region as they claim to be. Marzanos, prized for their flavor and texture, are canned and sold from a rather small region in Italy. Cento has stated that their tomatoes are indeed from Marzano, but that they removed the DOP certification seal due to the increased cost of legislation change. They provide this link where you can trace a particular can to the field it comes from. It’s a good idea to keep up on common fraudulent items for products that you buy often.
Nutritionally, tomatoes are a good source of many vitamins including vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, potassium, vitamin B, and folate. They are also a good source of the antioxidants beta carotene, lycopene, and chlorogenic acid. These compounds can prevent heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure. They are also a good source of naringenin, which can reduce inflammation.
Cooking or processing tomatoes can be a double-edged sword when it comes to nutritional content. Thermal processing is known to reduce levels of vitamin C, vitamin A, and iron. However it actually increases the amount of antioxidants in tomatoes, including lycopene, without affecting the amount of phenolics and flavonoids. You’re still getting good stuff from the tomatoes whether they are heated or not, so don’t be afraid to eat them every which way.
Organic, Conventional, and Flavor
Now you might wonder whether it makes a difference to buy organic compared to conventionally grown tomatoes when you’re at the grocery store. Research does show that organic tomatoes show reduced growth, leading to a higher content of soluble solids, vitamin C and total phenolics. Phenolics comprise a wide group of compounds, but this class is known to contain antioxidants and flavor compounds. It’s likely that a tomato with more phenolics will taste better and be better for you too.
What about when you get tomatoes home to finally eat? Some people swear by the fact that tomatoes should never go in the refrigerator, and should be left on the counter instead. This is because tomatoes are sensitive to temperatures below 53°F. Cold temperatures also cause a loss of volatile compounds, which affects aroma and flavor. When tested, tomatoes that were chilled for 8 days experienced a 65% reduction in volatile compounds. Though there is some recovery after resting, levels do not return to normal. There seems to be no significant loss of volatiles for up to 3 days of chilled storage.
Do keep in mind though, that tomatoes are often chilled during storage and shipping. It’s likely that the farther your tomatoes travel to get to you, the longer they have spent at cold temperatures. Regardless of how you keep tomatoes at home, you won’t be able to recover the flavor and aroma compounds lost before they get to you. If you’re looking for a high level of taste and nutritional value in your fresh tomatoes, definitely look at where they are grown and consider buying local. And if you’re concerned about how you should store your tomatoes at home, Serious Eats did some pretty in-depth taste-tests, complete with pictures.
What does this all mean for you as a consumer? Tomatoes are a staple fruit (or vegetable) that offer a lot of health benefits. The best things you can do to make sure you are getting the best tomato products are to check their origin, buy more local if possible, buy organic, and avoid cold storage. Until next time, Happy New Year, and happy eating! If you have any tomato questions, post em below!