Taste Is King When Talking Tomatoes
To achieve desired consumer results when developing fruit and vegetable varieties that look, taste, and smell better, David Clark, UF/IFAS professor of environmental horticulture, says the process also involves a concept called psychophysics, which is described as “quantifying the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they effect, such as behavior and emotions.”
According to Clark, psychophysics is a way to quantify difficult-to-measure things such as how much you like a color or fragrance. In the end, it provides consumers with what they want.
“Basically, we conduct psychophysics experiments to determine, without bias, what it is that consumers mentally envision their perfect tomato to be,” he explains. “We usually find there is no one singular tomato that fits the bill for all consumers. Rather, there are usually two to three segments of consumers, and each segment wants a particular type of tomato.”
When Clark says “we,” he is referring to several researchers at UF who are working to gather the specifics on consumer preference. Recently established as a formal center, this group is now called the UF/IFAS Plant Innovation Center.
Linda Bartoshuk, a UF food science and human nutrition researcher who is part of that group, uses hedonic-based scales, which essentially measure food preferences, to determine what people like in a tomato or other type of fruit.
These scales are different from the traditional scales, Clark explains. “They measure the intensity of flavor and sweetness. These are hard things to measure,” he adds.
Bartoshuk, in turn, works with Charlie Sims in UF’s Food Science Department, and Sims is responsible for conducting human taste panels where they put these new scales to the test.
It is Harry Klee, a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department in UF’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, however, who provides dozens of different tomato varieties to the taste panel. As the panelists make their decisions, Klee takes samples of those same tomatoes used by the panel and he extracts all the chemicals, Clark explains.
“[Klee] takes a subset of [the chemicals] and he analyzes the sugars and the acids — the volatiles — everything that has to do with the tongue and the nose,” Clark says. “Using cross-modal statistics, they can look at the biochemical blueprint of those different tomato varieties and relate the biochemistry to what people like.
“By having those two data sets and being able to link them using statistical methods, you can come up with a biochemical recipe for a great tasting tomato,” he continues. “If you apply these same methods to strawberry or blueberries or any other product, you can do the same thing. It is very reproducible.”
In essence, Clark says the researchers can control genes responsible for taste (sugars, acids, volatiles), fragrance (volatiles), and sight (color).
“The key is finding out what people want and putting that together in the perfect combination of traits that will have maximum consumer appeal, then using conventional breeding to deliver it, and molecular tools to help make it happen faster,” he says.