Sam Hutton, an associate professor of horticultural sciences at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center and a tomato breeder, examines tomatoes in his greenhouse.

Sam Hutton, an associate professor of horticultural sciences at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center and a tomato breeder, examines tomatoes in his greenhouse.   

Florida-grown tomatoes – particularly the UF/IFAS-bred Garden Gem – pack a tasty punch for tomato juice, new University of Florida research shows.

By and large, the biggest market for Florida tomatoes remains food services. They’re not generally harvested for processed products, such as juice, paste and more. But they’re still fresh, whole tomatoes.

For years, researchers have toiled to help breeders develop the genetic traits to give UF/IFAS-bred tomatoes more flavor.

Now, for a newly published study, scientists used six UF/IFAS varieties to process into six different tomato juices. In three testing panels comprising a total of 255 consumers, researchers asked the testers at the UF Sensory Lab how they tasted and smelled. The verdict: two “thumbs-up.” While other varieties fared well in the tests, panelists consistently rated juice made from the Garden Gem significantly higher for aroma, flavor and texture.

“I think this study shows that Florida tomatoes are viable for making processed tomato products,” said Paul Sarnoski, a UF/IFAS associate professor of food science and human nutrition. “Our juice exhibited better flavor – with more fresh and fruity attributes closer to that of a fresh-picked tomato.”

Sarnoski, lead author of the new paper that summarizes the research, said better-tasting tomatoes lead to improved tomato juice flavors. So, it behooves tomato growers to produce tomatoes that go beyond the bland flavors of the past and deliver tasty products to consumers.

Sam Hutton, a UF/IFAS associate professor of horticultural sciences and tomato breeder at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, believes the new data on tomato juice will help his efforts to develop tastier tomatoes

for farmers to grow.

“This research is interesting to me because the chemistry of better-tasting juice is very similar to the chemistry of better-tasting tomatoes,” Hutton said. “So, these results help to direct my program’s efforts to develop varieties with improved flavor, especially ones with more of these fruity attributes. Such varieties may then be more preferred by consumers and could help boost demand and consumption of Florida tomatoes.”

Now that researchers know Florida-grown tomatoes are good for tomato juice, scientists want to know whether Florida tomatoes can be marketed at a cost-effective price. Once they clear those hurdles, scientists hope to help producers stock grocery stores with Florida-grown tomato products.

Generally, processed tomatoes are sold for less money than fresh-market ones and need to be processed into a juice, sauce, paste and so forth, Sarnoski said.

Toward that end, scientists need to find out whether -- working with farmers -- they can produce tomatoes at a cost that’s competitive with other regions. They also need to know whether Florida has the food-processing infrastructure in place. If not, does the industry need to adapt existing food processing infrastructure to produce processed tomato products?

“I think these two questions relating to costs need to be answered before juice from Florida processed tomato products end up in a supermarket,” Sarnoski said. “Right now, in Florida, most of the juice processing is focused toward citrus. Perhaps some of that infrastructure can be modified to make tomato juice.”

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