Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel

Page 192

century, however, Americans regarded the plant with suspicion. Even into the 1900s there was much doubt about possible toxicity and adverse health effects. To eat a raw tomato was generally believed to be suicidal. Only by prolonged cooking, it was widely reported, could the tomato's venom be neutralized. In 1860, the bible of the American housewife, Godey's Lady's Book, cautioned that tomatoes should “always be cooked for three hours.”

Only relatively recently has the tomato become a major world food. It was in commercial production late last century in the United States but came into intensive production only about the time of World War I. Even today, its acceptance in tropical Asia and Africa is not great, but the tomato is still continuing its diaspora. In just the last 20 years, it has taken hold so strongly in China that it is now the “number one” vegetable there. Despite conservative culinary traditions and a wealth of native vegetable crops, the tomato is becoming increasingly important in the Chinese diet. (A special kind of tomato sauce has long been known the world over by the name “ketchup,” derived from the Chinese word koechiap, meaning brine of pickled fish.)

Regardless of its slow beginnings, the tomato is now one of the top 30 food crops of the world. Nearly 20 million tons are produced annually, most in Europe and North America. The United States now not only grows a big proportion of the world's tomatoes, it is the leading consumer, followed by Italy, Spain, the Arab nations, Brazil, Japan, and Mexico.

The Modern Tomato's Mixed Parentage

Today's tomato is more than just the one species Lycopersicon esculentum. Plant breeders have engineered it to meet modern requirements by incorporating genes from many of its wild relatives. For this purpose, plant explorers have gathered wild tomato seeds, especially in the Andes. One such collection was made in 1962 when two young botanists, Hugh Iltis and Donald Ugent, were studying the wild potatoes of the dry valleys near Abancay, Peru. Eating lunch on a rocky mountain slope, they picked the fruits from a scraggly wild tomato plant growing nearby. The fruits were green and only the size of marbles, but they helped make a tasty meal. Although not involved in tomato studies, the two plant taxonomists saved the seed and later mailed it to renowned tomato breeder Charles Rick.

In his University of California plots, Rick planted the seeds and discovered that the plant was new to science. It was named Lycopersicon chmielewskii in honor of a deceased Polish scientist and fellow tomato breeder. Rick soon noticed that the tiny fruits of this new tomato had a very high sugar content (11.5 percent)—almost twice the normal level. During almost a decade of cross-breeding, he transferred genes for high sugar content into horticultural lines of the common tomato. The result was large, red tomatoes with unusual sweetness and flavor. The content

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement