Should Tomatoes Be Kept in the Fridge or Not? Scientists Have an Answer

Researchers have concluded that the taste of the fruit depends mostly on strain, not the household storage regimen

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Tomatoes are pictured at the Frank Rudd and Sons Tomato Farm
Tomatoes on the vineCredit: MOLLY DARLINGTON/ REUTERS
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Finally! Science has finally brought us the answer to a problem keeping people awake at night the world wide. Should tomatoes be kept in the fridge or not? The answer is resounding: It doesn’t matter.

Good to know; thank you, researchers from the University of Göttingen, publishing in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.

The argument has been whether chilling ripe tomatoes impairs their flavor, aroma or sensory message. Some argue that sticking ripe tomatoes in the refrigerator makes them taste like cardboard. Others say it doesn’t. Enter science.

After a battery of tests by chemical analysis and “a trained panel” of people, the research team of Larissa Kanski, Marcel Naumann and Prof. Elke Pawelzik concluded that the flavor of the fruit depends mostly on strain, not storage regimen.

Put otherwise: Chilling may reduce flavor in tomato x because volatile compounds associated with flavor are sensitive to temperatures below 12 degrees Celsius (53.6 Fahrenheit). But the chief parameter is whether tomato x is flavorful in the first place. If you don’t like it chilled, you won’t like it fresh either.

The scientists from Göttingen, Germany, were spurred to their research by ever-mounting consumer grousing that tomatoes just don’t taste like they used to. A lot of work has gone into investigating the vagaries of the tomato supply chain (including chilling). No work had gone into how consumers treat the fruit after it reaches their possession.

So the researchers asked, could it be that home refrigeration (at 7 degrees Celsius, versus room temperature of 20 degrees Celsius) ruins our experience of the tomato?

To examine this conundrum, the team looked into “the impact of two household storage regimes on the volatile profile and important flavor-related compounds” of said tomato, using newly developed breeds and the tomatoes underlying the new breeds (their “parent cultivars”).

Aroma was measured scientifically; the “sensory attributes” of the fruits were described by a trained “sensory panel” of people.

What do members of a sensory panel do? They are “experienced and trained assessors who use their senses to perceive and evaluate the sensory properties of products. Among other attributes, this panel examined the discernible sweetness, acidity and juiciness of tomatoes,” the team explains.

The panel found no perceptible differences in the flavor of ripe tomatoes based on how they were stored from farm to fork – and taking into account the chain of harvesting in that journey. “The variety of tomato is much more important,” the panel rules.

So if you don’t like today’s tomatoes, don’t blame your fridge, check other variants. Lead author Kanski qualifies, however, that the faster you eat tomatoes after their harvest, the better they taste, wherever they were stored. The tomatoes they tested had been off the vine for up to four days.

It’s true that mass-production breeding programs and protracted refrigeration have been accused of focusing on shelf life of the picked tomato rather than its flavor qualities.

And it’s definitely true that different strains of tomato taste radically different. The so-called chocolate brown-red-streaked cherry tomato grown in Israel is quite sweet, though chocolaty it is not. Beefsteak tomatoes have a weak flavor profile unless they’re green, when they’re tangy. Roma, or plum, and red cherry tomatoes have more flavor.

And all originated in South America and Central America with Solanum pimpinellifolium and its tiny, tiny red fruit, a relative of the deadly nightshade (and of the potato and the eggplant) but not toxic itself.

One final word. It is empirically accurate to say that people aren’t thrilled with the taste of modern cultivars and prefer so-called “heirloom” tomatoes. Note this, tomato farmers of Israel. You can’t just focus on the tomato’s survivability in conditions of aridity, temperature, shelf life and so on. They have to taste good too.

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