Purple tomato

A new, genetically modified purple tomato may hit US grocery shelves

(CNN) — It tastes like a tomato, smells like a tomato and even looks (mostly) like a tomato. There’s just one catch: It’s purple.

The USDA has approved genetically modified purple tomatoes, clearing the way for the unique fruit to be sold in American stores next year.

“From a plant pest risk perspective, this plant can be safely grown and used in breeding,” the agency said in a Sept. 7 news release.

The approval brings the purple tomato one step closer to widespread distribution. In addition to its unique color, the purple tomato also has health benefits and a longer shelf life than garden-variety red tomatoes, researchers say.

The tomato was developed by a team of scientists, including British biochemist Cathie Martin, who is a professor at the University of East Anglia and project leader at the John Innes Center in Norwich, England.

Martin has worked on pigment production in flowers for more than 20 years, she told CNN. “I wanted to start projects where we could look and see if there were health benefits for this particular group of pigments,” she said.

The pigments that caught Martin’s attention are anthocyanins, which give blueberries, blackberries and eggplants their deep blue-violet hues. With funding from a German consortium, she set out to develop tomatoes that were rich in anthocyanins, hoping to “increase the antioxidant capacity” of the fruit.

By comparing regular tomatoes with artificial purple tomatoes, she would be able to easily determine whether anthocyanins are associated with any specific health benefits.

To create purple tomatoes, the researchers used transcription factors from snapdragons to trigger the tomatoes to produce more anthocyanins, creating the vibrant purple color.

Martin and her colleagues published the first results of their research in 2008 in an article in Nature Biotechnology.

The results were “stunning,” she said. Cancer-prone mice that ate purple tomatoes lived about 30% longer than those that ate normal tomatoes, according to the study.

Martin said there are “many explanations” why anthocyanin-rich tomatoes may have health benefits. “There are probably multiple mechanisms involved,” she said. “It’s not like a drug where there’s a single target. It’s that they have antioxidant capacity. It can also affect the composition of the microbiome so it can better deal with the digestion of other nutrients.”

And in 2013, Martin and his colleagues published a study that found that purple tomatoes have twice the shelf life of their red cousins.

Martin founded a spinout company, Norfolk Plant Sciences, to market purple tomatoes. Nathan Pumplin, CEO of the Norfolk, US-based business, told CNN that the purple tomato “strikes people in this very simple way.”

The bold purple color means “you don’t need any imagination to see that it’s different,” Pumplin said. “It really gives people a choice.”

FDA approval and commercialization are next steps

In the past, attempts at genetically modified food have often focused on technical crops whose production is more sustainable, he added. But for consumers, the benefits of eating genetically modified foods are unclear.

“It’s very abstract, hard to understand,” Pumplin said. “But the purple tomato—you either choose or you choose not to eat it. The difference between a GMO (genetically modified organism) product and a non-modified tomato is striking – and the potential health benefits for consumers are also clear.

Pumplin says consumers around the world are “warming up” to genetically modified foods.

“We look at the issues facing our society in terms of sustainability, climate change, health related to diet and nutrition, and it’s clear from the response to our announcement that this is a really important topic for a lot of people,” he said. “I am encouraged that many people are beginning to look at biotechnology again in light of important challenges.”

At the same time, “GMOs are not a silver bullet,” he said. “It’s one of the tools in our toolbox as plant scientists, scientists, agronomists to improve the food production system.”

The next steps for the purple tomato are FDA approval and commercialization, Pumplin said. “We need to breed excellent, delicious purple tomatoes. We need to work with producers to produce and distribute them.”

Norfolk will begin running limited test markets in 2023 to see which consumers are most interested in purple tomatoes.

As for the taste? A purple tomato is indistinguishable from your standard red tomato, Pumplin said.

“It tastes like a great tomato,” he said.

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