Upfront

What does psychology have to do with the efforts by horticulturists to create a better tomato? At the APA 2011 Annual Convention session "From Psychophysics to Horticulture: Understanding and Increasing Palatibility of Nutritious Foods," Linda M. Bartoshuk, PhD, described her work with "supertasters" to isolate the stuff that dream tomatoes are made of.

Supertasters are people with many more tastebuds (or, fungiform papillae) than average tasters. "Supertasters live in a neon food world. The rest of us live in a pastel world," she said. Supertasters and regular tasters were tapped to help with the project. But the first step was to figure out what flavor elements of the tomatoes—called volatiles—influence the fruit's taste. Some volatiles make tomatoes taste sweet, others salty—or worse.

"Since 1989, all the people working to make tomatoes taste better were using the wrong volatiles," she said. Working together, researchers were able to isolate the correct volatiles. When those volatiles are intensified through cross-breeding, tasters perceive the tomatoes as sweeter, and it's this sweetness that people associate with a better tomato.

Bartoshuk called it "an extremely reachable goal" to break through the ceiling of what people perceive as the best tomato they've ever tasted to the nirvana of someone's absolute favorite food. "We can't add sugar," she said, "but we can add volatiles."

—K. Mills