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A Gruelling Journey: How a Tomato Gets from the Farm to the Supermarket

A Gruelling Journey: How a Tomato Gets from the Farm to the Supermarket

 

If you’ve ever tried a truly fresh tomato, then you know it is bursting with flavour and succulent with juices. By comparison, the tomatoes you get in the supermarket taste and feel like cardboard.

There are many factors to blame for the bland taste of supermarket tomatoes, such as the genetic mutations that farmers encourage in order to grow more perfect-looking tomatoes, but sacrificed taste.

A big part of the reason that supermarket tomatoes are so flavourless is because of the long and intensive process required to get them from the farm to the supermarket.

Here we will look at exactly what steps are involved in getting a tomato from the field to your supermarket, including how they are grown, processed, and stored. 

 

How Tomatoes Are Grown

As many people are already aware, supermarket produce is grown far away. One study called “Food, Fuel, and Freeways” looked at produce at Chicago’s Terminal Market, which is the site where brokers and wholesalers buy produce for supermarkets and restaurants.

They found that tomatoes traveled 1,369 miles to get there. By comparison, farmer’s market tomatoes only traveled approximately 117 miles.

This has an obvious impact on the produce’s freshness and also on the environment because of all the energy which goes into transportation.

It isn’t just the distance traveled which affects tomatoes. Supermarket tomatoes are grown in the regions where they can experience the most growth, yet this doesn’t always mean the region has the best growing environment.

In the winter, as many as 90% of tomatoes are from Florida. The reason Florida is chosen for growing tomatoes is because it has a warm winter. However, that is about the only thing Florida has to offer as far as growing conditions. There are many problems with growing tomatoes in Florida. Some of these issues include:

  1. There is no nitrogen in the soil so tomatoes wouldn’t be able to grow there at all if it weren’t for the massive amounts of fertilizers which are added to fields.
  2. The soil is very sandy and won’t retain water, so farmers have to continuously water the tomatoes to keep crops alive.
  3. The climate is terrible for tomatoes. As Floridians know, the weather can go from a hot 80 degrees to a cold frost very quickly. This drastic temperature change affects the tomatoes’ development and taste.
  4. Insects, fungi, and disease regularly attack Florida’s tomatoes.

The only way tomatoes can survive in Florida is by drenching the crops with fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals. The USDA Pesticide Program found traces of more than 35 pesticides on supermarket tomatoes. The official Florida handbook for tomato growers lists 110 different pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides which can be used on tomatoes.

Photo of plants on a farm getting dosed with a pesticide spray while the farmer wears a face mask.

Image: nationofchange

The Processing of Tomatoes

When a fruit becomes ripe, it goes through changes which cause it to become sweeter, less bitter, and softer.

For mass growers though, ripening is a bad thing. Ripe fruit is hard to transport and will rot quickly. To prevent losses, tomato farmers will pick the fruit while it is still green.

Photos of workers picking completely green tomatoes

Picking tomatoes while they are still green. Image: NPR

Yet even green tomatoes will start to ripen and deteriorate, so farmers have found ways of delaying the ripening. One method is to keep the tomatoes refrigerated and in atmosphere-control environments until they are ready to be distributed to supermarkets.

A more worrisome method is genetic modifications. The genes of the tomato are modified so that ethylene (which is a natural chemical that triggers ripening) isn’t produced.

One type of GMO tomato produced in India was able to stay fresh-looking 45 days in room temperature storage, while the non-GMO tomatoes had rotted by that time!

There are numerous adverse health effects associated with eating GMOs, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of all the potential risks yet.

If tomatoes are picked while they are green and unripe, how come they look red and ripe in the supermarket?

Once the tomatoes reach the warehouse, they are sprayed with ethylene to trigger the ripening process. However, artificial ripening doesn’t compare to the natural ripening process which would occur on the vine. The tomatoes never have a chance to develop their full flavour.

Photo showing green, non chemically ripened tomatoes versus red tomatoes that were ripened using chemicals.

Unripe tomatoes are induced to “ripen” using a chemical spray. Image: Chemical & Engineering News

This is just one more reason that supermarket tomatoes are so tasteless. Even growers admit that the tomatoes don’t taste as good. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) has this to say about processing methods:

“Normally, farmers pick their produce while they are still green. The ripening process is then induced by spraying the fruits or vegetables with ethylene gas when they reach their destination. For long hauls, fruits and vegetables are refrigerated to prevent damage and delay their ripening.
However, there are drawbacks to these postharvest practices. Fruits that have been harvested prematurely may result in poor taste and quality despite appearing as fully ripened ones. Fruits transported for long periods under refrigeration also have the tendency to lose their quality.”

Unfortunately for consumers, growers don’t seem to mind that their tomatoes taste like cardboard.

As one tomato farmer honestly admitted, “I don’t get paid a single cent for flavour!”

The Storage of Tomatoes

Once harvested, the green, unripe tomatoes are put on trucks and taken to large distribution centres. There, the tomatoes will get sprayed with ethylene to trigger ripening before they get picked up by retailers. According torecommendations published by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), tomatoes can be stored for 2–3 weeks before going to the supermarket!

Photo of thousands of tomatoes in a cold storage.

Image: Tucson.com

To prevent the tomatoes from going bad before they are picked up, various methods are used to preserve them including:

  • Refrigeration
  • Applying fungicides
  • Applying sanitizers

Refrigeration isn’t a dangerous method, but it does cause chemical changes in the tomatoes which will affect the taste and texture. As one French studyproved, not only will refrigeration prevent the development of flavor, but it can break down existing flavor (which the green tomatoes probably didn’t have much of to begin with).

The fungicides and sanitizers are applied to kill organisms on the tomatoes which could cause deterioration, and we know that ingesting these can be harmful for humans — we just don’t know how harmful because the effects haven’t been thoroughly studied.

The long storage time also affects the nutritional value of tomatoes. Since the tomatoes weren’t able to ripen naturally, some nutrients never get the chance to develop. The nutrients which do develop aren’t always stable. For example, antioxidants (which are plentiful in a truly-fresh tomatoes) break down quickly. One study found that vitamin C in tomatoes dropped from 3.30mg/ml-1 at day 1 of storage to ZERO after 2 weeks of storage!

 

What Can You Do?

Buying tomatoes from your local farmer’s market might seem like a hassle and, yes, they will probably cost more than at the supermarket. However, it is worth the extra effort and cost to get a tomato which actually has nutritional value and flavour, and isn’t loaded with so many chemicals.

You aren’t going to be able to find a locally-grown tomato in the winter. Instead, a much better option is to buy canned tomatoes. To the surprise of many, canned tomatoes are often actually “fresher” than supermarket tomatoes because they are picked when ripe and processed at facilities located right next to the growing fields.

Photo of tomatoes being processed at a tomato factory

Tomato processing plant. Image: Ventures Africa

 Or, you can be even more proactive about your food choices: start growing your own tomatoes! With a good indoor growing system, you could even have fresh tomatoes all year long.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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