September 14, 2005 | By: Aimee Nielson

Panelists tasted under red lights to help prevent bias based on tomato color.

More than 80 people volunteered to taste 18 varieties of tomatoes for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. They sat in a room illuminated by red lights so the color of the tomatoes would not affect their opinion before their taste buds got involved.

Rick Durham, Extension consumer horticulture specialist, along with Clair Hicks, UK College of Agriculture food scientist, conducted tomato taste panels over a two-week period. They included heirloom varieties and modern, or commercial, varieties. Taste panels were comprised of UK faculty, staff, students, Master Gardeners and other tomato lovers.

“A lot of people have the notion that heirloom tomatoes have better flavor than modern tomatoes,” Durham said. “Some people think that the breeding and development of modern tomatoes may be better for transportation and packaging, that maybe there has been some compromise in flavor and texture issues. Whether that is true or not is anecdotal, nobody really knows for sure.”

Durham hopes that the results of the taste panels will help scientists know if heirloom varieties actually do have a higher quality of taste and texture, but it will take two or three years of data to make that determination.

Panelists were offered incentives to participate, including a pound of free tomatoes from the UK South Farm’s tomato harvest. Students of Durham’s Introduction to Plant Identification were given bonus points to participate, or if they didn’t like tomatoes, they could send someone in their place and still receive the points.

“I think it’s going to give the people here at UK a more generalized idea of what people really like,” said Brian Fallis, UK College of Agriculture junior. “An idea of what people desire, what are going to be the good ones to grow maybe.”

“I think seeing the lights and how they had it set up without bias is interesting to know about,” said Chlodys Johnstone, UK College of Agriculture freshman. “It’s interesting to learn about different consumer testing and how they do the screenings.”

Master Gardner and UK Sociology Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Joanna Badagliacco participated in the taste panel and said the results could help her decide what to plant in her own garden.

“I eat tomatoes all the time, I try to grow tomatoes with some success and I really love them,” she said, admitting she has a bias towards deep red tomatoes. “I’m Italian so it’s a basis for almost every meal that I have (dinner meals).”

She said the lighting was good for her because of her bias. “It may show me that other colors are just as good,” she said.

Durham said the results won’t really change what the college plants at South Farm, but they could help farmers selling their produce at farmers’ markets. If the results show that many consumers prefer a particular variety, they could plant more to increase sales and satisfy their customers, he said.

“You know if it turns out that heirlooms do have superior flavor or texture, I think people will want to know that,” Durham added. “If it turns out there is really no difference, I think some of the commercial growers will want to know that, too.”


Writer: Aimee Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267

Contact: Rick Durham 859-257-3249