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Science and Culture: Vegetable breeders turn to chefs for flavor boost

  1. Carolyn Beans, Science Writer

Last August, four chefs sat around a table in a Madison, WI, restaurant, each with small samples of 10 tomato varieties. With nary a word spoken, the chefs tasted each morsel, then rated the flavor along dimensions represented by axes drawn on paper. Tomatoes high in sweetness and acidity fell on the right. Those high in umami, a savory flavor, were grouped in the bottom left.

Fig. 1.

Chefs with expert palates are helping plant breeders revolutionize the flavor of produce. The owners of the Oregon-based, organic seed company, Adaptive Seeds—Andrew Still (Second from Right) and Sarah Kleeger (Left)—walk their fields with Oregon State University agricultural researcher Lane Selman (Right) and local chef Timothy Wastell as the team develops new varieties of kale. Image courtesy of Shawn Linehan (photographer).

Tomato flights aren’t the latest food trend, and Julie Dawson, the woman overseeing this event, was not administering a culinary exam. Dawson, a plant breeder at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is one of a small but growing number of breeders who are harnessing the power of the chef’s palate to produce more flavorful vegetables.

Most of the tomatoes the chefs tasted that day were varieties in the making. The chefs’ input helped determine which varieties hit the seed catalogues, which were bred with others to improve flavor, and which were dropped from production altogether. “Chefs can articulate what tastes good and what needs to be fixed in ways that others can’t,” says Dawson.

Breeder–chef partnerships vary in approach from quantitative analyses to informal conversation, but all are centered on the basic idea that when breeders and chefs unite they can revolutionize the quality of produce.

Flavor Lost and Found

People have crossed plants and selected the most productive, disease-resistant, attractive, and flavorful offspring for millennia. But as we came to rely on food grown at a distance, …

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