Vicky Boyd, Staff Writer
Vicky Boyd, Staff Writer

Fruit and vegetable breeders and the produce industry in general are finally beginning to understand that consumers are more savvy and are seeking more flavorful fresh produce.

Maybe that’s why heirloom varieties, which were grown mainly for the flavor, have enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance.

In recent years, breeders have introduced a small but growing number of varieties that actually have great flavor.

And — surprise! Many consumers are willing to pay up for this better-tasting produce.

In the past, many breeding programs have focused on yield, disease tolerance, shelf life and appearance, with taste being a lower priority.

Granted, breeding for flavor can be cumbersome because many flavor attributes are tied to other undesirable traits. If you select for flavor, you also may get baggage with it.

Plus, flavor can be subjective, unlike many of the other traits that have hard numbers behind them.

“We’re still learning about flavor, and we’re putting science behind it,” said David Stark, vice president of consumer benefits for St. Louis-based Monsanto, which owns Seminis vegetable seeds.

“We’re hiring people who have flavor sensory backgrounds to look at the different molecular compounds behind the flavors that people like and people don’t like.”

Discounting all of the chemistry and biology, breeding for flavor just takes longer.

Ask Bill McCarthy, a pepper breeder who has worked on Bella Fina miniature red, orange and yellow bell peppers for about 10 years at Seminis’ facility near Fort Myers, Fla.

Not only did he seek early maturity and some disease resistance, but McCarthy said he also wanted peppers that were sweet and had a crisp, snappy texture.

“With flavor breeding, you pretty much have to eat everything,” McCarthy said.

“If you’re looking at plants during the day, you can probably look at 500-600 a day without a problem. But when you start tasting things, you’re limited a lot more.”

Or talk to Jay Scott, who heads the University of Florida’s tomato breeding program in Wimauma and who spent more than a decade using conventional techniques to develop a deep red tomato with a flavor similar to homegrown.

I say similar because the Tasti-Lee ― as the variety is called ― isn’t quite as good as the ones I grow in my garden, but it’s closer than any other store-bought tomato I’ve eaten. Scott definitely is on the right path.

Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets picked up the Tasti-Lee about two years ago and now sells it in more than 1,000 stores. The variety may carry a premium price, but consumers apparently don’t mind paying for it.

LoBue Citrus, Lindsay, Calif., also has gained a following with its Heritage Reserve program that features an old-line Washington navel variety.

The oranges come from trees that are at least 50 years old, said Robert LoBue, farm manager and co-owner.

LoBue Citrus markets the fruit through a limited number of retailers, who have seen great consumer response.

On a recent visit to one of the Heritage Reserve groves with LoBue, I found out why the navels were so special. After sampling a few pieces, my taste buds were spoiled with intense orange flavor, natural sweetness and loads of juice.

Tastes like success to me.

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