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Ann Gentry Headshot

Is Our Food Getting Dumbed Down?

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Autumn is here, the unfortunate sign that the last few days of tomato season are upon us. That has me wondering about something. Why, with only week's left in tomato season, do supermarkets provide mealy, flavorless tomatoes when the juicy, sweet, local variety is still in abundance? Is it because they believe we don't care? Or that consumers don't even know that the eat-right-out-of-your-hand tomato is available? Or maybe, the distinct taste of a true tomato has been lost on some people. Perhaps a better question needs to be asked: is our food getting dumbed down?

These awful tomatoes are genetically modified organisms, (GMOs), which sounds like something out of science fiction. They seem to be dominating much of our food purchases, even while local produce gives us access to better tasting food. Manufactured food products go way beyond the obvious and familiar -- those highly processed products that are produced cheaply and quickly, to package and ship well, and completely lacking in nutritional value. You know, the foods with the fun-sounding names like Cheetos. Now, the same could be said of tomatoes, peaches or apples. Yes, my friends -- produce is being grown as an industrial object. Many of the foods we love have become franken-foods.

Michael Pollan warns us to "avoid edible food-like substances." That's hard, when supermarkets are filled with them. In Barry Estabrook's new book Tomatoland, he concentrates on how the tomatoes we find in the supermarket are very different from the tomatoes grown in a garden. Home grown tomatoes need to be gently handled, but tomatoes grown industrially are produced to survive long trips. As Estabrook writes, tomatoes are "concentrated on yield." Industrial farming wants plants that yield fruits that weigh as much as possible. Our tomatoes are getting as fat as Americans! If a tomato isn't mature and still green, you can just expose it to ethylene gas in a warehouse, and the gases will turn the tomato just the right color. It turns vibrant cherry red, but it is devoid of flavor.

Of course, it is more than just about tasteless tomatoes, or carrots that taste bland, or apples that are perfectly red and also perfectly mealy. As Estabrook writes, "My mother in the 1960s could go into a supermarket and buy a tomato that had 30-40% more Vitamin C, and way more niacin and calcium. The only area that the modern industrial tomato beats its Kennedy-era counterpart is in sodium. The modern tomato has lots more."

Estabrook illustrates how California and Florida grow the same acreage of fresh market tomatoes each year. Unfortunately, The Sunshine State isn't the greatest climate to grow tomatoes, because the soil there is more like sand, so it has no nutrients. It's too humid, and tomatoes thrive in hot, dry, desert conditions. He continues, "Florida farmers apply eight times the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides than their California counterparts on the same acreage. And there is a larger cost: to keep costs down -- labor practices are often ignored with slavery-type conditions existing. The workers get caught in the middle of external pressures of keeping prices low."

In the end, it's all up to us. Why? Because, we the people ... who eat these industrial objects, we are driving the market. We create the demand. We expect produce to be on the supermarket shelves year round. I'd like to suggest that the next time you encounter a "fresh" supermarket tomato in October you might have to wonder what industrial process happened to get it there.

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