(CNN) – It tastes like a tomato, smells like a tomato, and even (mostly) looks like a tomato. There’s only one catch: it’s purple.
The USDA has approved a genetically modified purple tomato, paving the way for this unique fruit to hit US stores next year.
“From a pest risk perspective, this plant can be safely grown and used in breeding,” the agency said in a Sept. 7 press release. Approval brings the purple tomato one step closer to large-scale distribution. In addition to its unique color, the purple tomato also has health benefits and a longer shelf life than red garden variety tomatoes, scientists say.
The tomato was developed by a team of scientists, including British biochemist Cathie Martin, a professor at the University of East Anglia and project leader at the John Innes Center in Norwich, England.
Martin has worked on the production of pigments in flowers for more than 20 years, she told CNN. “I wanted to start projects where we could look and see if there were any health benefits for this particular group of pigments,” she said.
The pigments that caught Martin’s attention are anthocyanins, which give blueberries, blackberries and eggplant their rich blue-violet hues. With funding from a German consortium, she decided to engineer tomatoes rich in anthocyanins, hoping to “increase the antioxidant capacity” of the fruit.
By comparing regular tomatoes to modified purple tomatoes, she would be able to easily identify whether anthocyanins were linked to specific health benefits.
To engineer the purple tomatoes, scientists used transcription factors from snapdragons to prompt the tomatoes to produce more anthocyanins, creating a vibrant purple color.
Martin and his colleagues published the first results of their research in 2008 in a Nature Biotechnology article. The results were “breathtaking”, she said. According to the study, cancer-prone mice that ate purple tomatoes lived about 30% longer than those that ate normal tomatoes.
Martin said there are “many explanations” for 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 about their antioxidant capacity. It can also influence the composition of the microbiome, so it’s better able to handle the digestion of other nutrients. .”
And in 2013, Martin and his colleagues discovered that purple tomatoes had twice the shelf life of their red cousins. Martin created a spin-off company, Norfolk Plant Sciences, to market purple tomatoes. Nathan Pumplin, CEO of the US-based Norfolk Trading Company, told CNN that the purple tomato “strikes a chord with people in this very basic way.”
The distinctive purple color means “it doesn’t take imagination to see it’s different,” Pumplin said. “It really allows people to make a choice.”
FDA approval and commercialization are the next steps. In the past, forays into genetically modified foods have often focused on technical crops that are more sustainable to produce, he added. But for consumers, the benefits of eating a genetically modified food are murky.
“It’s very abstract, hard to understand,” Pumplin said. “But a purple tomato – you choose or choose not to consume.” The difference between the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) product and the unmodified tomato is striking – and the possible health benefits for consumers are also clear.
Pumplin says consumers are “warming up” to genetically modified foods around the world. “We are looking at the issues facing our society with respect to sustainability, climate change, health related to food and nutrition, and what is clear from the response to our announcement is that it is It’s a really important topic for a lot of people,” he said. “I am encouraged that many people are beginning to review biotechnology in light of the significant challenges.”
At the same time, “GMOs are not a magic bullet,” he said. “It’s a tool in our toolbox as plant scientists, as 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 grow great, delicious purple tomatoes. We need to work with growers to produce and distribute them.”
Norfolk will begin launching limited test markets in 2023 to identify consumers most interested in purple tomatoes.
As for the taste? The purple tomato is indistinguishable from your standard red tomato, Pumplin said.
“It tastes like a good tomato,” he said.