Purple tomatoes could be hitting store shelves soon
Genetically modified purple tomatoes may be just days away from FDA approval, according to the team that created the colorful fruit. The fruits are modified to be packed with antioxidants.
Purple Fruits 101: antioxidants are chemicals that are able to delay or even prevent certain types of damage to our cells. They are found in many plant species, and some studies suggest that eating foods rich in antioxidants may help protect against certain diseases.
Anthocyanins are a type of antioxidant found in high concentrations in blueberries, blackberries, and plums — they’re what give these fruits their purple hue. Tomatoes also produce anthocyanins, of course, but only in their leaves, not in their fruit — at least for now.
Purple Tomatoes: More than a decade ago, Cathie Martin, a plant biologist at the John Innes Center in England, modified a tomato plant to contain two genes from snapdragon plants and one gene from thale cress.
As a result, the fruits of the tomato plant produced anthocyanins and took on their characteristic purple hue.
“They appear to be more resistant to fungal infections, which causes tomatoes to rot.”
According to a small learn Martin published in 2008, cancer-prone mice fed a powdered form of the purple tomato lived longer than mice fed regular tomato powder.
A successor learn 2013 also found that the purple tomatoes had twice the shelf life of unaltered fruit.
“We’re not sure why, but they seem to be more resistant to fungal infections that cause tomatoes to rot,” says Martin said the New York Times in July 2021.
Small AG: Martin and her colleague Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory set up Norfolk Plant Sciences (NPS) to commercialize the purple tomato, but applying for FDA approval for a GM food is a costly and complicated process.
“Our ‘business model’ is that we have this tiny company that has no employees,” Martin told the NYT. “Obviously the FDA is used to the larger organizations, so you get a little problem here.”
“When they say, ‘Oh, we want a little more data on that,’ it’s easy for a company,” she says. “For me – it’s me who has to do it! And I can’t just throw money at it.”
After six years, the team’s application will be officially reviewed, which is what the FDA is expecting make a decision by late March or early April 2022. If approved, NPS plans to sell seeds, plants, tomatoes and tomato products such as juice.
“Our goal is to market these tomatoes as nutritionally enhanced but without any specific health claims,” Nathan Pumplin, the company’s president, said during a online presentation in February 2022.
The real benefits: Results from mouse studies often don’t extrapolate to humans, and it would be nearly impossible to prove that purple tomatoes can actually extend our lifespans. People just live too long for such studies to be logistically feasible.
While the antioxidants in purple tomatoes aren’t anything special — you could eat two handfuls of blueberries a day to get the same amount of anthocyanins as the mice in Martin’s study — it would be one thing a lot of blueberries, and the fruit is expensive.
The longer shelf of purple tomatoes could help reduce food waste.
Tomatoes are comparatively cheap and easy to grow. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) the world is growing 220 times more tomatoes than blueberries by weight. And unlike blueberries, which are 99% grown in America or Europe, tomatoes are grown all over the world.
A person would only need to eat two purple tomatoes a day to get the same amount of antioxidants as two handfuls of blueberries, and that can be less daunting, especially when the tomatoes are made into a sauce. Any type of tomato can be made into a purple tomato without changing its flavor, which could add variety.
Potential health benefits aside, the purple tomatoes’ longer shelf life could be worth it on its own, as it could help reduce food waste — but first, the FDA needs to make a decision on the fruit.
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