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Improved Nutrition as well as New Color
Researchers at Oregon State University in Salem Oregon are in the final stages of producing a purple tomato. This is being done the old fashioned way, by cross breeding, rather than using newer genetic engineering techniques. One reason for choosing cross breeding is the fact that purple tomatoes already exist and what researchers are attempting to do is to produce a commercial variety that contains anthocyanins as well as lycopene, both of which are antioxidants that help to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. Traditional tomatoes are rich in lycopene but lack anthocyanins which are found in the dark pigments of fruits such as red grapes and blueberries. Salads, pizzas and spaghetti sauce made with purple tomatoes will provide diners with both sets of antioxidants (and washing this down with a glass of red wine will provide additional anthocyanins).
Purple tomatoes exist among the thousands of varieties of tomatoes found in nature. The tomato appears to have originated in the Andes Mountain valleys of South America and were originally cultivated by the Incas and other native tribes. The tomato made its way northward to Central America and Mexico and then to other parts of North America in pre-Columbian times. When the Europeans arrived, they found tomatoes being grown by native tribes throughout the hemisphere. The word tomato itself is derived from the Mexican Indian word tomati.
Some forms of purple tomatoes have always been in existence but have not gained popularity as some, but not all, of the wild varieties of purple tomatoes are poisonous. Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family of plants and this group contains poisons as well as edible plants. Thus, cultivation of purple colored tomatoes has remained limited and regional. With the advent of commercial agriculture, the varieties of food plants grown tended to be limited as growers began specializing in varieties that had special characteristics such as resistance to disease, high yield per acre, heartiness for shipping and storing, etc. The object being the ability to profitably feed the greatest number of people while keeping the cost to the consumer low. However, as society has become richer and more technologically advanced our desire for greater variety in food increased as did our ability to meet that demand. In recent years there has been some movement away from mass markets, with their emphasis on large quantities of standardized products, toward more niche markets that cater to individual tastes in both food and other goods. In the case of agricultural goods there has been considerable growth in recent years of companies and organizations that specialize in maintaining older varieties of agricultural plant and animal species. Among the non-profit organizations in this area are historic museums which utilize these for living history exhibits. Commercially, many of these are seed companies specializing in historic and uncommon varieties to sell to gardeners. However, as the demand for greater variety in food has grown these companies have also been catering to farmers who grow specialty crops commercially. In addition to historic preservation and variety for consumers these organizations and companies also perform a useful social service in that they are maintaining a gene bank that preserves the genes of varieties that might otherwise become extinct due to lack of use. In the event of new plant diseases or things like climate change, which might threaten the existence of the large commercial varieties, scientists can draw on this gene bank to cross breed with the commercial variety to develop resistance to the environmental change. The bank also gives scientists the plants needed to cross breed in order to develop new varieties, like the improved purple tomato.
While there are a number of small seed companies that sell various varieties of purple tomatoes, don't expect to see the purple tomato variety, which is now being developed at Oregon State University, available in either plant form from garden companies or on the grocery shelves for a few years. It will be at least two years before the cross breeding with a tastier variety will be completed and the new breed stabilized. At that time you can begin looking for purple tomatoes in your neighborhood grocery store and the plants in your local garden shop.