What happened to good tomatoes?

You say tomato, I say tomahto. But most of us agree, if you buy them at the store, they aren’t very good...

“Some of the stuff you see in the grocery store you might as well eat your shirt,” said Paul Wigsten, produce buyer for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “I haven’t tried a regular, off-the-shelf tomato out of season in years. They’re not cheap, and they’re no good.”

Wigsten farms 10 acres at the Culinary Institute and buys the rest of his tomatoes from a hydroponic greenhouse nearby, but most consumers still rely on the supermarket. Tomato sales remain strong, but people are increasingly unhappy with the product. That’s in part because growers--struggling to keep up with year-round demand and foreign competition--have turned to more durable but less flavorful varieties.

Shippers and consumers make things worse by putting tomatoes in cold storage, where they don’t belong.

“You either get that spongy thing or you get that hardened dry tasteless thing,” said Sue Mueller, a homemaker in Cincinnati. “I haven’t bought them in years.”

Only 10 percent of consumers rank tomatoes as one of their favorite vegetables, according to Market Brief, a research newsletter for chain restaurants. That puts them just ahead of squash and Brussels sprouts, but behind 12 other vegetables, from carrots to cauliflower. And food science researchers regularly find tomatoes among the lowest-ranked items in consumer satisfaction.

But that’s not because Americans don’t like tomatoes. They are the second-largest vegetable crop in the United States, and per-capita consumption has gradually increased since the 1970s. Many shoppers say they look forward to the late summer weeks when they can get ripe, local tomatoes.

But consumers want tomatoes year-round, and the plants need a tropical climate--hot days and mild nights--to grow. Most domestic tomatoes come from Florida and parts of California, while imported ones come mainly from Mexico.

The problem is that tomatoes weren’t meant to be shipped.

To make the long journey from the vine to the supermarket, tomatoes have been bred for durability, as well as shelf life and size--factors that run counter to good flavor. They’re picked immature, before they’ve had time to develop their natural flavor, and ripened later using ethylene gas. The result is a reliable and often visually appealing product that may have little taste, experts said.

Good tomato flavor comes from a complex mix of sugar, acid and around 20 natural chemicals. In making a more durable product, tomato breeders have squeezed those elements out of the familiar varieties, said Harry Klee, a professor of horticulture at the University of Florida and a tomato expert. Klee’s job is to put the flavor back in.

“They’ve lost it over the years, and it’s really hard to put back in,” Klee said. “It’s like saying you want a child that’s tall, blond, blue-eyed, good looking and strong. It’s about that equivalent in complexity.”

Breeders and farmers aren’t the only ones to blame for low-quality tomatoes. Wholesalers, stores and, ultimately, consumers have long neglected the cardinal rule of tomato handling: never, never refrigerate.

“That’s the worst thing you can do for a tomato,” said Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee.

Unfortunately, tomatoes start to lose flavor and become mealy below 55 degrees--a climate that’s not limited to refrigerators. If a tomato has been in a cold semitrailer or cargo hold, even the best breeding and cultivation will have been wasted. Brown said his organization has spent more than $300,000 on advertising to spread that message to consumers, with little success.

Even with proper handling, it’s hard to keep consumers happy, Brown said. Farmers have to pick among thousands of tomato varieties hoping to find ones that satisfy everyone.

“There are just millions of Americans that have an emotional attachment to a particular tomato experience,” he said. “I can’t ever send you a tomato that’s going to be as good as the memory of the tomato that you had at your grandfather’s house as a child. And if I don’t deliver that, it’s not going to satisfy you.”

Such picky consumers might do best to join the roughly 30 million Americans who grow their own tomatoes. For the rest of us, Klee advises buying local tomatoes in summer and focusing on smaller varieties--cherry, grape and Roma tomatoes--the rest of the year. Those varieties haven’t been as intensively bred, and the smaller fruits are better able to maintain their sweetness.

As for larger tomatoes, help is on the way, he said. American growers have paid close attention to the success of high-end markets like Whole Foods, which sells organic, heirloom and rare varietals that haven’t lost their flavor to breeding.

Those tomatoes are more expensive than current supermarket fare, but they’re what consumers want, Klee said.

“They’ve gotten the message” that consumers are willing to pay more for better texture and flavor, Klee said. “It’s just going to take a few years for [the result] to reach the consumer. There’s a huge opportunity now to develop good-tasting tomatoes. Even five years from now we’ll be doing a lot better.”