- By Emma Woollacott
- Corporate reporter technology
“Taste is a trend that is definitely reappearing,” notes Franco Fubini, founder of the fruit and vegetable supplier Natoora.
You might be surprised that the flavor has gone out of style.
But it can be difficult to find really tasty varieties of fruit and vegetables, especially due to the demands of supermarkets, he explains.
“They started asking for varieties to have a longer shelf life. For example, in the case of a tomato, it needs to have a thicker skin, so it doesn’t crack as easily; be faster, which can absorb more water. .
“So over time you select your varieties for attributes other than taste. The flavor attribute begins to lose importance and, as nature dictates, if you select other characteristics, the flavor disappears.”
Mr. Fubini’s company specializes in seasonal produce selected for their flavor and sells its products to high-end restaurants and shops around the world.
“Part of this revival comes from restaurants, because chefs have a huge influence,” he says. “This and the travels have both stimulated this rebirth of flavor, this search for flavor”.
Breeders and researchers are at the forefront of this quest, using sophisticated techniques to produce fruit and vegetables that have all the flavor of traditional varieties, making supermarkets happy.
Professor Harry Klee, of the University of Florida’s Department of Horticultural Sciences, is working to understand the chemical and genetic makeup of fruit and vegetable flavors, focusing on tomatoes.
“The tomato has been a long-term model system for fruit development. It has a short generation time, large genetic resources and [est] the most economically important fruit crop in the world.
“It was only the second plant species to obtain a complete genomic sequence, a huge help in studying the genetics of an organism.”
The taste of plants is a complex phenomenon. In the case of tomatoes, it results from the interaction between sugars, acids and more than a dozen volatile compounds derived from amino acids, fatty acids and carotenoids.
Professor Klee wants to identify the genes that control the synthesis of volatile compounds and use them to produce a tastier tomato.
“We are not yet at the stage where we have finished assembling the improved aromatic characteristics in one line, but we hope to get there in about a year,” he says.
Genetic modification (GM) can be used to improve taste by importing genes from other species, but products created this way are banned in most countries of the world.
However, other forms of genetic manipulation are more widely accepted. American company Pairwise is working on new fruit and vegetable varieties using CRISPR gene-editing technology licensed from Harvard, the Broad Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Instead of taking genes from other species, as in the case of GMOs, CRISPR involves modifying existing genes within the plant by cutting and unifying them.
“We make very small changes to one or two pieces of DNA,” says Haven Baker, co-founder of Pairwise.
This genetic modification is considered “non-genetic” in most countries in North America, South America and Japan. However, in Europe, where genetic modification is highly controversial, it is considered to be genetically modified and is strictly regulated.
After leaving the EU, the UK launched a consultation on the use of gene editing to modify livestock and food crops in England.
Even in the United States, where opinions are less clear, some manufacturers are wary of genetic modifications.
“We’re not fans of it at all. Even though innovation well done can sometimes produce good results, we believe in tradition and not necessarily in touching things – and in getting back to nature and nature. How it works,” says Fubini.
But some innovations would be extremely difficult without genetic intervention.
One of Pairwise’s first products, expected in a year or two, will be a seedless blackberry that the company says will have a more consistent taste than traditional varieties. The company is also working on a cherry without a stone.
All of this could be achieved through traditional farming techniques, but as fruit trees take years to mature, this would be a long-term project.
“Some of the fruits that interest us, like the cherries we want a stone-free cherry, could theoretically be farmed, but it would take 100 to 150 years,” says Baker.
“The products we want to make and that we think consumers want are not feasible in our life with conventional farming, it’s just too slow.”
Some players in the agricultural sector combine old and new techniques. The American company Row 7, which specializes in organic seeds, conducts breeding programs to develop new and tastier products.
Its seed suppliers use traditional cross-pollination techniques, along with genomic selection – the ability to examine molecular genetic markers across the plant’s entire genome – to predict traits such as taste with reasonable accuracy.
In addition, it has a network of 150 chefs and farmers who value its work.
“This community evaluates varieties that are still in development, providing feedback on their potential in the field and in the kitchen,” said Charlotte Douglas, Chief Operating Officer.
One of its flagship products is Badger Flame beetroot, selected to be eaten raw and sweet without being earthy.
“This variety would have been lost if chefs and growers hadn’t supported it. It expands our understanding of what a beet can be and opens up new possibilities for exploration,” says Douglas.
Some plants may taste inappropriate. Take cabbage, for example, although this leafy green is nutritious, its potent taste can be put off.
Mr. Baker and his Pairwise team are working on a sweeter, sweeter plant.
“Kale is very nutritious, but people don’t like to eat it. So we used genetic engineering to produce more nutritious, leafy greens that taste just like the lettuce we’re used to,” he explains.
In the case of kale, strong flavor is considered a negative, but in general, flavor goes hand in hand with nutrition.
“Selecting for flavor means selecting for pleasure; it means selecting for nutrition because, more often than not, when you select a complex flavor, you also select nutrient density,” says Douglas.
“This means farming in and for biological systems – the kind of agriculture that produces the tastiest plants possible; that means farming for greater diversity.” Nt.