Purple tomatoes could be hitting grocery store shelves soon

A genetically modified purple tomato gets approval from USDA

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One sliced and two whole purple tomatoes developed by Norfolk Plant Sciences

A genetically modified purple tomato is one step closer to widespread commercial distribution.

Earlier this month, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a purple tomato from Norfolk Plant Sciences, a company that aims to bring the purple tomatoes to market.

APHIS reviews modified plants and considers whether they might pose an increased plant pest risk compared to nonregulated plants. APHIS found the Norfolk Plant Sciences’ purple tomato is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated tomatoes.

“From a plant pest risk perspective, this plant may be safely grown and used in breeding in the United States,” APHIS said in a news release, noting that the plant is not subject to regulation.

What are purple tomatoes?

A sliced purple tomato developed by Norfolk Plant Sciences

Purple tomatoes taste, smell, and mostly look like regular red tomatoes, except they are purple. Aside from their unique color, purple tomatoes have longer shelf life than garden variety red tomatoes and potential health benefits that their red cousins do not have.

Norfolk Plant Sciences’ purple tomato was developed by a group of scientists, including British biochemist Cathie Martin, who is also a professor at the University of East Anglia and a project leader at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England.

With funding from a German consortium, Martin decided to engineer tomatoes that were rich in anthocyanins ― the same pigments that give blueberries, blackberries, and eggplants their rich blue-purple hues ― hoping to increase the antioxidant capacity of the fruits.

“I wanted to start projects where we could look and see whether there were health benefits for this particular group of pigments,” Martin, who worked on pigment production in flowers for more than two decades, told CNN.

While tomatoes have the genes for producing anthocyanins, these genes are typically not expressed in the fruit in most commercial varieties. So, Martin and her fellow scientists used transcription factors from snapdragons to trigger the tomatoes to produce more anthocyanin, creating a vibrant purple color.

Potential health benefits

Published in 2008 in an article in Nature Biotechnology, the first results of their research found that cancer-prone mice that ate purple tomatoes lived around 30% longer than those that ate normal tomatoes.

“It’s about them having antioxidant capacity,” Martin said of why anthocyanin-rich tomatoes may have health benefits. “It also may influence the composition of the microbiome, so it’s better able to deal with digestion of other nutrients.”

Martin is the founder of Norfolk Plant Sciences.

Longer shelf life

Five years later, Martin and her colleagues released a study detailing that purple tomatoes had double the shelf life of their red counterparts.

When will purple tomatoes be available in the market?

Norfolk Plant Sciences’ purple tomatoes will be commercialized soon after it gets approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We need to breed excellent, delicious purple tomatoes. We need to work with producers to produce them and distribute them,” added Nathan Pumplin, the CEO of Norfolk Plant Sciences’ U.S.-based commercial business, in an interview with CNN.

Norfolk Plant Sciences will launch limited test markets in 2023 to determine which consumers are most interested in purple tomatoes.

Sources: CNN, USDA