The FDA has completed the review process to start marketing genetically altered, high-antioxidant purple tomatoes in the United States.
Developed over the past 15 years in the UK, the purple tomato is a licensed variety proprietary from Norfolk Plant Sciences. It is currently being marketed exclusively in U.S. restaurants in a few areas. It will be test-marketed in retail stores in 2024. In 2025, the company will start looking at further expansion.
Professor Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli from the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, England, initially began researching different nutrients in produce science in an effort to make fruits and vegetables more healthful. Colleague Jonathan Jones also researched disease resistance in plants to try to make fruit production more sustainable by reducing pesticide use and food loss to pests and diseases.
“Those are the two innovative starting points that got the company started in 2007, and it’s taken this long to get to the point of getting the product out to the market,” said Nathan Pumplin, CEO of Norfolk Healthy Produce.
Why the U.S.?
“The U.S. has been the focus because it had a very clear regulatory path where the tomato could be reviewed by government agencies for safety, any environmental or human health concerns,” Pumplin said.
As a GM food, purple tomatoes were required to go through an extensive reviewing process to be approved for consumption.
“If you develop a conventional product, one that is made by conventional breeding, you don’t need to go through this whole process, even though you bring in a lot more biodiversity than you do with bioengineering,” indicates Pumplin.
For tomatoes in particular, the brown rugose virus is a huge concern. It’s time-consuming to develop a variety that is virus resistant using conventional methods but much faster using biotechnology. The only hangup is with regulation.
“Purple tomatoes have actually been reviewed much, much more than any conventional variety,” Pumplin said.
Despite setbacks, Pumplin knows he has a product that is special.
“We have a product that is so differentiated,” he said. “It is dark, dark purple on the outside and inside. It is unlike any tomato that anyone has ever seen before.”
What gives this tomato its strong purple color is the high level of antioxidants, caused by pigments called anthocyanin. Those are the same biomolecules found in blueberries, blackberries, and pomegranates, among others.
Skepticism of GM foods
Norfolk anticipated some skepticism because of the way the tomatoes were developed.
“We expected much longer timelines of when we would be going to market because we are cognizant of the GM sensitivities that are pervasive in popular culture here in the United States and other countries,” said Jessica Louie, CTO, Norfolk Healthy Produce. “However, we haven’t encountered that almost at all. It’s maybe indicative of the rising tide of biotechnology and scientific acceptance across industries, not only in food and agriculture but also in healthcare and life sciences coming out of the pandemic.”
Louie said sensitivity to sustainability and climate change were essential in the tomato’s development.
“When we think about nutritional benefits, we’ve had access to genetic modification, genetic engineering and biotechnology for decades,” she said. “With purple tomatoes, we want to start pecking away at that negative perception both regulatory and from consumers.”
So what does it taste like? To the surprise of many, it simply tastes like a grape cherry tomato.
Not only does its sweetness and low acidity give it a great tomato flavor, but it also has a “very good consistency, juicy and with the pop that people want,” Pumplin says.
As part of its launch plan, the company has performed a number of product reveals in events, starting in the synthetic biology community and working outwards.
“From there, we’ve progressed into more mainstream consumption in restaurants throughout the country, including California, Boston, North Carolina, and some areas in the middle of the country in order to get a broad sense of who our future consumers will be as we go to market,” Louie said.
What Norfolk and the produce industry are working towards is increasing fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. They and others are hoping customers can achieve “the rainbow,” a balanced diet with different nutrients, different colors, and flavor profiles from the food that they get.
“We don’t see this as competing against red tomatoes, rather it’s something that’s gonna raise up the whole produce industry,” Pumplin said.
Norfolk is still cautious about how much they talk about the potential to grow and market purple tomatoes outside of the U.S.
However, Pumplin did tell Fresh Fruit Portal that “there is a lot of interest from companies in other countries on our product. What we are looking at is: where are there companies that want to work with us and there is a regulatory pathway to actually bring our product to market.”