Question your Tomato: Beware of Artificial Ripening

Have you ever reached for a big, red tomato and been surprised by its rock-hard texture? Most likely, the red-ripened appearance of the tomato is deceiving, and what lies underneath its beautiful skin is an unripened fruit.

In August 2011, NPR broadcasted an interview “The Unsavory Story Of Industrially-Grown Tomatoes” with Barry Estabrook, the author of the book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. 

“Tomatoland” written by Barry Estabrook

During this broadcast, Estabrook recounts a disturbing experience with the beloved fruit. He was driving behind a large distribution truck when a few fruits, appearing to be “green apples” indestructibly bounced out the rear of the truck and rolled off the highway. These “apples” were in fact unripened tomatoes mid-transport. Why would a truck transport a full load of unripened tomatoes?

On the broadcast, Estabrook then explains the fate of these unripened, green tomatoes en route for distribution. First, the full tomatoes are handpicked and then loaded into trucks. Soon after, the fruits are brought to a warehouse where they are then cleaned, waxed, and cartoned. Next, the bright green tomatoes are then brought into warehouses where processors emit ethylene gas spray on them.

What is ethylene and what does it do?

Ethylene is a gaseous plant hormone that regulates plant growth. When applied to fruits, it initiates the ripening process and causes the fruit to turn red. The chemical also affects the flavor by increasing sugar compounds and decreasing acidity within the fruit. This chemical is emitted naturally by plants in fields, but only when the plants naturally want to ripen.

Why might producers spray tomatoes with this chemical?

Tomatoes are extremely perishable. Depending on where the tomato comes from and its destination, the fruit will have to remain in a truck or warehouse for weeks. For example, a tomato traveling to Florida, an area nonnative to tomatoes, is going to have more travel time. Therefore, producers might ship unripened tomatoes, which they believe would survive the long journey. The producers will likely expel the ethylene gas while the tomatoes are in mid-travel. Artificial ripening in this case assures that tomatoes will survive travel and look red and “fresh” before shelf stocking at the store.

While artificial ripening by ethylene gas turns unripened tomatoes red, it does not actually “ripen” the fruit. This procedure is a result of modern industrial agriculture which has “destroyed” the fruit, as Estabrook claims.

Now you know, and what can you do?

If you do not already, you might want to consider buying your tomatoes (and other produce for this matter) at your local farmers market. At the Davidson Farmers Market, all farm vendors are based within 100 miles of the town of Davidson. Therefore, products will most likely spend, at most, an hour traveling, not to weeks.

When you purchase goods at the Market, you will not only invest in quality goods, but also support the farmers who care about good farming practices. You support local farmers who do not compromise the integrity and quality of the food you eat for sole economic gain.

If you purchase a tomato at a supermarket, be sure to look past the color of the fruit and test for its texture. Does it feel rock-hard? If so, it is most likely an unripened tomato sulking behind a facade of gaseous crimson.

Happy shopping!

Watch this time-lapse below to see the effects of ethylene gas on artificial tomato ripening.

Posted by Emily