Tomatoes: the case against heirloom, organic and on-the-vine

Last week I pop-quizzed Wim Zwart, a commercial grower in Gisborne who heads growers' group Tomatoes New Zealand. Here's what I learned: That bit of vine is kind of just a marketing trick.

'Truss tomatoes', sold in clusters with a bit of vine, are much the same as 'loose tomatoes'.

The vine has no effect on nutrition, shelf life or taste.

But, truss tomatoes are often a bit riper, because they are cut off the plant once the greenest tomato in the cluster is red-ish. (Other fruit, from the same cluster, might be picked less ripe and sold as 'loose'. These will ripen if you keep them out of the fridge).

So why leave the vine on? Marketers have worked out that the vine smells much more "tomatoey" than the actual fruit, which makes suckers like me more inclined to buy.

What's the point of that, as truss and loose tomatoes are sold for the same price? Well, I guess if you opt for truss, you're automatically buying at least five fruit."

Farmers markets are not all that

Wim and other growers sell at farmers markets and supermarkets. The tomatoes are the same - but customers often tell him the farmers market ones taste better. "I think that people eat our tomatoes and know where they come from, feel good about that and the taste buds follow suit," Wim writes.

Organics, also, may not be all that

The mind also has a lot to do with the popularity of organics, Wim believes. "People say that organic produce tastes better yet the produce has often been sprayed and the nutrient level could well be deficient. No research has ever been able to prove that organic produce is better for you." (NB: Wim is a conventional grower).
Certified organic growers can use sprays, including insecticides, that are on this list.

Heirloom tomatoes don't taste as good as  your average supermarket ones

Wim mentioned research that found people, in a blindfold test, preferred the current hybrids over heirlooms. Here's what I think he's referring to (note the top four are cherry hybrids). I'd like to note that this research found that nutritionally, heirlooms kick ass.

I'm a huge fan of growing my own tomatoes, mostly because of that gorgeous green-summer smell. Here's the tail-end of my 2009 crop of heirloom varieties Motelle and Purple Russian. I hung them in bunches in a cupboard and they ripened beautifully.

What types of tomato do you buy (or grow)? Are you sucked in by the vine too? Let me know if there's anything else tomato-related you'd like me to check out for you...

Catherine Woulfe is the deputy editor for Sunday magazine.