Though Vidalia onions are already known for their sweetness, researchers and growers are working to develop better tasting varieties and a new flavor-based measurement to further define the trademarked onions.

“We are getting into more consumer-related research that will benefit the general public and retailers instead of working on increasing yields for growers as we have in the past,” said Cliff Riner, coordinator at the Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center in Lyons, Ga., and area onion agent for the University of Georgia extension service.

“The goal is to put a better onion on the shelf, which will be a win-win for growers and consumers.”

Riner is working with a scientist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is based at the Athens campus of the University of Georgia.

Testing taste

They are conducting a two-year flavor trial as part of the development of a measuring system that will quantify the hotness of onions based on naturally occurring chemicals, including lachrymatory factors and other methyl-based compounds.

“The LF (lachrymatory factor) is what makes you cry,” Riner said.

“We know an onion with an LF of 6 is hotter than one with an LF of 3, but it’s not twice as hot. We need to establish a threshold that accurately reflects what you taste.”

Vidalia onion growers take Riner’s work seriously, said Bob Stafford, general manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council.

The research coordinator met with Stafford and growers in mid-March to discuss the status of several projects, including the flavor trial.

“The growers have given the center at least $1 million since it opened in 1999,” Riner said.

“They have worked diligently to preserve the reputation of their onions and put premium product on the market.”

Riner said the next project for the research center is already in the works.

He is planning a visual preference study to find out what consumers think a good Vidalia onion looks like so growers can further refine their selection of varieties to better meet demand.