Scientists in England developed a genetically modified purple tomato with higher antioxidant levels than the average red supermarket tomato. They hope to have it on the market in three years.
Meanwhile, a few years ago, scientists in Oregon developed a non-GMO purple tomato with higher antioxidant levels than the average red supermarket tomato. You can buy it online now, if you’re looking for a boost of antioxidants.
Both purple tomatoes get their color from anthocyanin, the antioxidant responsible for the blueberry’s color and reputation as a superfood. Anthocyanin has been shown to significantly inhibit cancers in cancer-prone lab rats. It might also provide health benefits in relation to neurological diseases (where it acts as an MAO inhibitor), inflammation, diabetes, and bacterial infections.
GMO Purple Tomato and Its Benefits
The genetically engineered purple tomato was developed as part of a program to increase antioxidants in popular fruits. Blueberries and black raspberries also contain the antioxidant anthocyanin, but they are typically eaten as treats, rather than a staple food. For instance, Americans eat about a pound of blueberries per person each year, but about ninety pounds of tomatoes.
A side effect of the genetic modification is that this tomato has a longer shelf life. The tomato can be picked closer to that date of ripening, then shipped to the stores with less squishing. Here’s where it gets a little odd, though. The plan is to juice these GMO purple tomatoes, skipping the store shelves altogether.
The scientists involved in the production of the GMO purple tomatoes have formed a company to handle the commercialization of the tomato juice.
Non-GMO Purple Tomato and Its Benefits
The non-GMO purple tomato is named “Indigo Rose” and was developed by researchers at Oregon State University. OSU has been breeding tomatoes in order to increase their levels of antioxidants. The scientists at OSU took tomato plants that had been crossed with anthocyanin-rich wild varieties, then crossed those with flavorful red tomatoes to produce a flavorful, anthocyanin-rich variety.
Indigo Rose has been on the market for more than a year and is available online at High Mowing Seeds (organic) and Johnny’s Selected Seeds (conventional). I haven’t grown it, but from comment threads online, it looks like it takes close to 100 days to mature. If the inside is green when cut, it isn’t yet ripe. Sunlight needs to reach the tomato to produce the anthocyanins. Any part of the fruit shaded by a leaf will be red when ripe and won’t produce the anthocyanins.
Indigo Rose produces tomatoes that weigh about 1 or 2 ounces – “cocktail-sized”. OSU is planning on introducing cherry tomatoes that produce anthocyanins next. Indigo Rose is self-pollinated and breeds true to its parent.
As usual, genetic engineering is producing things we don’t need and things we already have.
Note: Both of these purple tomatoes are different from other purple varieties available, such as Cherokee Purple, by the compound that produces their color. Most purple varieties get their color from the combination of pheophytins and carotenoids. Purple Smudge is the only variety available on the market besides Indigo Rose that gets its purple from anthocyanins, but Purple Smudge has a much smaller quantity of the compound in its fruit than Indigo Rose.
Indigo Rose purple tomato photo via Oregon State University