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Seeking Out The Tastiest Tomato: From The Garden To The Plate

During this interview, reporter Ed Joyce mistakenly referred to the "First Alternative Cooperative, the OB Market in Ocean Beach," but meant to reference the Ocean Beach People's Organic Foods Market. We apologize for the error.

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Aired 10/22/09

Tomatoes are the most frequently bought and the most commonly homegrown vegetable in the United States. With all that popularity we wondered whether consumers can tell the difference between organic and conventionally grown tomatoes, and is one growing method better that the other? KPBS Environmental Reporter Ed Joyce put organic, heirloom and conventionally grown tomatoes to the test and tells us what he's found out.

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Above: KPBS Environment Reporter Ed Joyce explores the differences between processed and organically grown tomatoes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. As part of a station wide project, KPBS is producing a series of reports exploring the food we eat. Exactly where does it come from? What goes into producing it? And how does it wind up on your dinner plate? Today, we’re focusing on one of the most popular and useful members of the produce family: the tempting tomato. In sandwiches, salads and sauces, tomatoes are a staple on many household menus but in recent years some people have noticed a change in the cherries, the Romas and the Beefsteaks in the produce department. The tomatoes look the same but they don’t taste the same and it seems there’s actually a reason for that. KPBS environmental reporter Ed Joyce is here to tell us the truth about tomatoes. Hi, Ed.

ED JOYCE (Environmental Reporter, KPBS): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Where are you getting your tomatoes? Are they tasty? Do you grow your own? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, Ed, one of the reasons you chose to do a report on tomatoes is that lots of people say they are dissatisfied with the taste of store bought tomatoes. Was there some kind of tomato survey?

JOYCE: I think people just have noticed in buying some of the store bought tomatoes, depending upon where those tomatoes come from that they’re just not the same flavor as maybe they once had. Maybe their taste buds are changing. But the tomatoes are bred in a certain way for shelf-life more so than for flavor, most of these conventional tomatoes.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that because there’s this whole process that you talk about where the tomatoes do look the same but, indeed, they’re not as ripe as they used to be.

JOYCE: Well, they extend the shelf-life by using this breeding to develop tomatoes that ripen during shipment. Now we’re talking about just regular garden variety tomatoes, not organic tomatoes, here, so they pick them green, they ship them green, and they breed these for uniformity, shape, color but not at all for taste. So it’s not really about taste. And they use pesticides to prevent bug infestations while growing as well. Again, this – these – this breeding of these crops, these tomatoes, they’re created, again, for trade, not for taste. That could be part of the reason why some of the tomatoes just don’t have that flavor that people have come to expect in the past.

CAVANAUGH: And they don’t have the scent either.

JOYCE: No.

CAVANAUGH: It’s sort of like they’re – they look like great tomatoes but a lot of them really are sort of like not tomatoes that you would recognize from your childhood.

JOYCE: Now you may be getting the same, you know, mix of nutrients in that tomato but you can have nutrients and flavor, too.

CAVANAUGH: Right, that’s very true. So is organic actually an alternative for people who want a good tasting tomato?

JOYCE: Well, in what I – in just sort of my unofficial survey in tasting tomatoes and tasting some new varieties as well, I would say so. There’s studies that are ongoing, not conclusive, that say the potential of not using pesticides, synthetic pesticides that is, and synthetic fertilizers when you grow organic tomatoes, produces a better tomato in terms of flavor, in terms of taste, and maybe nutrients as well. It’s a healthier soil. It’s also good for farmworkers because they’re not getting exposed to those pesticides as well.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. So I think that we should go through the exact difference, or as exact as we can get here, between organic and conventionally grown tomatoes. You talked about pesticides. Now, the reason I would imagine that most tomatoes that we see in the supermarket are conventionally grown is because of that shelf life question that you were talking about. Do organics really have a briefer shelf life?

JOYCE: I would suggest that considering the fact that they’re not handled the same way, they’re not raised and bred to be hanging around on the self longer. They’re picked fresh and they’re meant to be consumed fresh. And the tomatoes that I’ve had were incredibly tasty, they were juicy, they just were incredible flavor in comparison to – and just not – the other tomatoes, some of them are okay. You know, they’re not too bad, like some vine-ripened tomatoes that are not organic, they were fine. You know, there were some taste and flavor there. They’re a different type of tomato maybe that in the process of vine-ripening, it’s a different kind of tomato, they process that a little bit differently. But it’s, again, like you say, it’s what’s not on the organic tomatoes that people are trying to avoid and there may be something to be said for whether that influences the flavor as well.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Ed Joyce, environmental reporter here at KPBS and we’re talking about the truth about tomatoes: organic, conventional, what they taste like. It’s part of a station wide project at KPBS Radio, TV and the web is doing about food. We’re taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727, and let’s hear from Phyllis in Normal Heights. Good morning, Phyllis. Welcome to These Days.

PHYLLIS (Caller, Normal Heights): Hi. Good morning. What a great story. I love this. I’m a community gardener in Normal Heights, and I have learned so much in the last eight years about varieties of tomatoes. And it’s so exciting to know when you buy them from like a farmers market there’s probably like 30 different kinds of tomatoes. But for me, I think the best thing is a homegrown tomato is the only one that has the flavor. If you’re buying them at a store, they’re wet and…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

PHYLLIS: …they’re red or yellow or orange but they’re tasteless. There’s just no taste. And I go – if I go into a restaurant, I don’t even eat a tomato if it’s on my plate or anything because – unless I know it’s been, you know, homegrown and allowed to ripen on the vine. And I think that’s what makes a difference in the flavor whether it’s conventional or organic. I think if they’re allowed to go through the ripening process on the vine, that’s what gives it the true tomato flavor, otherwise you just don’t get it.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Phyllis. And Phyllis agrees with most people about that taste thing.

JOYCE: There’s no question. And we went to one of the farmers markets in San Marcos there that’s at Cal State San Marcos on Wednesdays from two to six, and we met with Casey Anderson, who works for the San Diego County Farm Bureau also. He and his mother raise a small crop of organic tomatoes. They’re not certified organic because they don’t produce a huge volume but he – they raise 13 varieties, and these are heirloom tomatoes. That means the seeds have been handed down through generations. So – And I had a – the first time I’ve ever tasted something called a Green Zebra. It’s a little – it looks like a green apple but it’s a little tiny, smaller, like a large cherry tomato. Incredibly sweet. This is one of the heirlooms. And it’s got a tangy – How did Casey describe it? It’s like almost as if it has a little lime drizzle on top of it. It’s got a sweetness but it’s got a little tanginess, and it was delicious. It was sweet and juicy and just squished with, you know, the tender walls of the fruit. It was delicious.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I tell you, not only can you find different varieties of tomatoes if you go looking, especially in farmers markets, but a lot of people buy organic tomatoes not so much for what’s in them but for what is not in them.

JOYCE: Yeah, we went to the First Alternative Cooperative, the OB Market in Ocean Beach, in San Diego. We talked to the marketing director, Amber McHale, to ask her a little bit about what’s not in those tomatoes and why they buy strictly organic tomatoes.

AMBER MCHALE (Marketing Director, OB People’s Food Store): Some crops have been proven organically to have a higher yield of certain vitamins, not all. That’s a study that’s still ongoing. But, again, for me and for most of these shoppers, it’s not the extra added nutrition, although, again, when you have healthy soil, you’re going to have a healthier product, it’s the lack of – what’s not in there. What – those synthetic, toxic pesticides, those fertilizers.

CAVANAUGH: And that was Amber McHale. We’re going to be hearing more from Amber and a lot more from Ed Joyce, our environment reporter here about the truth about tomatoes when These Days returns in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and we’re back. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m here with KPBS environmental reporter Ed Joyce. And as part of KPBS’ series on food, where it comes from and what goes into producing it, we’re talking this morning about tomatoes, the tomatoes you see in the supermarket, at the farmers market, in restaurants, and the ones you have in your home. Where do they come from and are they good for you? We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Ed, we’ve been talking about organic and conventionally grown tomatoes but let’s talk about the benefits of buying tomatoes that are grown here versus those grown either way, organically or conventionally, in other parts of the state or the United States or in Mexico.

JOYCE: Well, I think in terms of carbon footprint, if you’re buying locally, you’re reducing that carbon footprint. You’re supporting local farmers, you’re supporting the local economy as well, and we’re lucky in San Diego County that we have such a bountiful crop of fresh produce and fruits available most of the time year round, tomatoes in season, roughly May through October. So I think in terms of freshness and flavor and taste, you’re getting those benefits as well when you’re buying locally. They’re picked fresh, you eat them fresh. That’s great. We have a lot of farmers markets all around the county, and that’s a great place to pick up fruits, vegetables and other things right off – you know, near – literally, off the vine, right off the farmer’s, you know, back of their trucks.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Johnny is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Johnny. Welcome to These Days. I want to let everybody know we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Johnny, are you there?

JOHNNY (Caller, San Diego): Good morning, guys. Thanks. I love this topic because I travel abroad and particularly in Romania they have legendary tomatoes. I mean, they’re absolutely delicious. And I can’t find tomatoes like that here to save my life. I’ve been looking for a long, long time and, you know, I avoid the big tomatoes at the supermarket, just the massive ones that have – they – they’re just like water. And I try to get the vine-ripe ones like I find at some of these organic markets. The vine-ripe ones seem better but they’re still really not all that tasty. I was wondering, one, is there really any truth to ripening the tomato on the vine? Does that add any flavor? And what else could possibly be contributing to these tomatoes in Romania that, literally, you can just pick off the vine and put some salt on it and eat the whole tomato and just have a good time with it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you’re making us envious. We all want to go to Romania now, John. Thank you for that. I don’t know why Romanian tomatoes are any better, do you?

JOYCE: I have no idea. Maybe we have a horticulturalist that does some deep research into Romanian tomatoes that can give us a call and let us know what the difference might be.

CAVANAUGH: And in your taste test with tomatoes ripened on the vine, you said you thought they were a little bit better.

JOYCE: It seemed to me that they were. They seemed a little bit sweeter, a little fresher than the larger variety tomato that’s bred for a different purpose, which is shelf-life, not flavor.

CAVANAUGH: Where do the tomatoes we buy in our local markets come from? Are they locally grown?

JOYCE: Many of them do come from San Diego County. When I talked to the People’s Co-op folks in Ocean Beach, they usually buy a lot of the organic tomatoes that they stock, different varieties and heirloom tomatoes, from farmers locally in the county. When that’s not available, they supplement that with supplies from the Central Valley and then during the winter season a lot of the tomatoes are coming from Mexico. Again, they source them as certified organic as well.

CAVANAUGH: And are there known negative impacts of eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables? And I’m thinking primarily for kids because they’ve got, you know, that growing body thing happening and I’m wondering if there’s any downside to, you know, the pesticide concentration that sometimes happens on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables?

JOYCE: Well, we did talk with Amber McHale of the Co-Op about that and, you know, pesticides are present in non-organics but even experts choose eating any fruits or vegetables rather than none at all. But she explained the differences about eating organic tomatoes in terms of reducing the pesticide intake and the effects, especially on young children.

MCHALE: Well, it’s particularly important for kids because of their endocrine systems. They’re just developing and they take a much harder punch from the pesticide industry, just their developing bodies. And we have more than 100 chemicals running through our systems right now, all of us, including newborns, and that’s from the environment outside, from the foods that we’re eating, it’s just building up. And, you know, kids are just so fragile and when they’re developing, they need all the nutrition, all the help, all the safety that they can get, and they’re going to get that by eating organic foods.

JOYCE: Again, this is Amber McHale, the marketing director for the People’s Co-Op and as a disclaimer, I should mention I am a member of the co-op as well.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, and, of course, she loves organic.

JOYCE: Definitely. Well, I think that what they’re stressing here is that if you’re going to buy organic for children, it’s probably as important as it is just for adults but more important because their bodies are just developing, as she said. And so the systems, the immune system, things are developing. If you can reduce the amount of pesticides, it’s probably a good idea in that growing young child to favor some organics. There’s a list of fruits and vegetables by the group Center for Science in the Public Interest, they came out with a list of what’s in your fruits and vegetables and tomatoes are not on what they call the dirty dozen but they suggest these fruits and vegetables that they surveyed, spinach, cherries, strawberries, peaches are the worst offender, 97% of peaches were found with pesticides.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

JOYCE: And some of those, two or more pesticides. So they suggest, you know, people who are trying to manage their budgets, organic can be more expensive. They suggest these higher levels of pesticides in these fruits and vegetables, you could buy organic and then on the lower end of the list maybe you buy non-organic. Although, surprisingly, I did go to a chain supermarket, a large supermarket chain, and bought a tomato, a vine-ripened tomato. It was $2.79 a pound and I bought an organic tomato that was $2.19 a pound. So you can kind of do your market basket surveys when you’re out there. Sometimes organic is not more expensive than non-organic.

CAVANAUGH: Now a lot of people grow their own tomatoes in San Diego and, Ed, just because – I just want to make it clear, just because you grow your own tomatoes doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re organic.

JOYCE: Right, it depends on what fertilizers you use…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

JOYCE: …and whether you use pesticides. There are natural pesticides, biological pesticides, that aren’t harmful for you that organic growers use.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

JOYCE: If you do that with your soil as well then maybe, you know, your tomatoes are a lot healthier than maybe some tomatoes you buy off the shelf, a conventional tomato at a supermarket.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Let’s take another call. Jane is calling from Kearny Mesa. Good morning, Jane.

JANE (Caller, Kearny Mesa): Well…

CAVANAUGH: Welcome to These Days.

JANE: …my problem is the skin.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

JANE: They have all these beautiful tomato – you know, I really just turned in – turned on to the program and I thought this is what I need to know. I need to – help with this question. It may be an impossibility scientifically but I have these beautiful little grape tomatoes but every time I go to eat one, I end up with a mouthful of skin.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Jane, I don’t know if we can solve your problem here. Ed, can you help Jane?

JOYCE: I think I would direct her to Nan. Maybe Nan Sterman could help her with that particular issue in terms of growing the tomatoes. Maybe there’s something in the process of growing those tomatoes, maybe it’s the variety that you’re growing. Maybe it’s not the most sumptuous variety to be growing to eat.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we have Nan Sterman on the line.

JOYCE: All right.

CAVANAUGH: Hi, Nan.

NAN STERMAN (Author of “California Gardener’s Guide, Volume II”): Hi there. How are you? Long time no talk to.

CAVANAUGH: Why does Jane have so much skin and no substance in her tomatoes?

STERMAN: I’m sorry. Say it again.

CAVANAUGH: Why does Jane have so much skin and no substance in her tomatoes?

STERMAN: It’s probably got to do – if she’s producing tomatoes, I would guess it has to do with the particular variety that she’s grown. Every variety’s different. Like Ed was talking about, they taste different, they look different. And your caller who was talking about tomatoes from Romania. Was it Romania?

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Umm-hmm.

STERMAN: Well, you know, it’s the same thing. He needs to find out what variety those tomatoes are and then see if he can find that variety in the markets here. Probably not. He’s probably going to have to look for the seeds and grow them himself.

CAVANAUGH: Nan, I tell you, I would love to talk to you for hours about this but we just simply cannot.

STERMAN: That’s okay.

CAVANAUGH: We’re out of time. Thank you so much. And, Ed, thank you so much. We’re going to be seeing you on San Diego Week tomorrow and we’re going to be able to get to see you eat that Zebra tomato.

JOYCE: You will, indeed, see me eat that Green Zebra tomato.

CAVANAUGH: And San Diego Week is on tomorrow, tomorrow night at 8:00 on KPBS. A team of KPBS reporters is, as we speak, tracing the food from your dinner plate back to the farm, field and ocean. Listen for reports on KPBS Radio, learn more at KPBS.org, and Envision San Diego Food airs November 16th at 9:00 p.m. on KPBS Television. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes.

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