Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – It tastes like tomatoes, smells like tomatoes, and even looks (mostly) like tomatoes. There’s only one catch: it’s purple.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved genetically modified purple tomatoes, paving the way for the unique fruit to be sold in U.S. stores next year.
“From a plant pest risk perspective, this plant can be safely grown and used for propagation,” the agency said in a September 7 press release.
The approval of the purple tomato is one step closer to widespread distribution. Scientists say that in addition to their unique color, purple tomatoes also have health benefits and a longer shelf life than the red garden variety tomatoes.
The tomato was developed by a team of scientists, including British biochemist Cathy Martin, a professor at the University of East Anglia and a project leader at the John Innes Center in Norwich, England.
She told CNN that Martin has been producing dye in flowers for more than 20 years. “I wanted to start projects where we could research and see if there were health benefits for this particular group of dyes,” she said.
The pigments that caught Martin’s interest are anthocyanins, which give blueberries, blackberries, and eggplant their rich blue-violet hues. With funding from a German consortium, it decided to engineer an anthocyanin-rich tomato, hoping to “increase the antioxidant capacity” of the fruit.
By comparing regular tomatoes to engineered purple tomatoes, you’ll easily be able to determine if anthocyanins are associated with any specific health benefits.
To engineer purple tomatoes, scientists used transcription factors from snapdragon to stimulate the tomatoes to produce more anthocyanins, creating a vibrant purple color.
Martin and her colleagues published the first results of their research in 2008 in an article in Nature Biotechnology.
She said the results were “amazing”. The study showed that cancer-prone mice that ate purple tomatoes lived about 30% longer than those that ate regular tomatoes.
Martin said there are “many explanations” for why anthocyanin-rich tomatoes might have health benefits. She said there were “probably multiple mechanisms involved”. “It’s not like a drug, where there is only one target. It has to do with them having an antioxidant capacity. It may also affect the composition of the microbiome, so it is better able to handle the digestion of other nutrients.”
And in 2013, Martin and his colleagues released a study that found that purple tomatoes have twice the life span of their red cousins.
Martin established a subsidiary, Norfolk Plant Science, to bring purple tomatoes to market. Purple tomatoes are “hitting a rope with people in this very basic way,” Nathan Bomblin, CEO of Norfolk US Trade, told CNN.
The distinctive purple color means it “it doesn’t take imagination to see it’s different,” Pomplin says. “It really allows people to choose.”
FDA approval and marketing are the next steps
In the past, he added, research into genetically modified foods has often focused on engineering crops that are more sustainable in production. But for consumers, the benefits of eating genetically modified food are ambiguous.
“It’s very abstract, and hard to understand,” Pomplin said. “But a purple tomato – you either choose or you choose not to eat it.” The difference between a GMO product and a non-GMO tomato is stark – and the potential health benefits for consumers are obvious, too.
Pumplin says consumers are “prepared” for genetically modified foods around the world.
“We look at the issues facing our community with regard to sustainability, climate change, health related to diet and nutrition, and what is clear from the response from our ad is that it is a really important topic for a lot of people,” he said. “I am encouraged that so many people are beginning to reconsider biotechnology in light of important challenges.”
At the same time, he said, “GMOs are not a silver bullet.” “It’s one tool in our toolbox as botanists, as scientists, and as agronomists, to improve the food production system.”
Pomplin said the next steps for purple tomatoes are Food and Drug Administration approval and marketing. “We need to produce excellent, tasty purple tomatoes. We need to work with producers to produce and distribute them.”
Norfolk will begin launching limited test markets in 2023 to determine which consumers are most interested in purple tomatoes.
As for the taste? Pomplin said purple tomatoes are indistinguishable from standard red tomatoes.
“It tastes like a wonderful tomato,” he said.