The Premise of a Tomato, part 2

I started this yesterday by discussing my home-grown tomatoes as compared to storebought, and referring to an article claiming that there was no nutritional difference between organic and conventionally grown tomatoes.

But it’s clear to anybody who actually eats tomatoes that there is a flavor difference. As Brandy said in the comments, if it tastes different, it has to be different.

What causes that? I realize it could easily be nothing more significant than freshness- I eat my home-grown tomatoes the same day they are picked- usually the same minute. Perhaps a factory farmed tomato would taste just as good if I picked it and ate it the same minute. But we also know that green-house grown tomatoes do not have that same wonderful flavor as those grown under the sun.

Do nutritionists know what chemicals or compounds cause that incredible zingy flavor in tomatoes kissed by the sun and caressed by the rain, but missing from tomatoes grown in carefully controlled greenhouses? Because obviously, there is something in one sort of tomato that is missing from the other. If they don’t know what it is, how can they measure, compare, and contrast and reach a conclusion about the nutritional value of each sort of tomato? How do they know there isn’t some unknown nutritional benefit the home-grown tomato might have that the other lacks?

I’ve just finished Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food again. He explains one problem with the say food scientists measure the nutritional value of a food:

Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. ”The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, ”is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”
If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

And so any study attempting to compare the nutritional value of a home-grown, organic tomato with a store-bought, greenhouse version, ultimately can only compare the parts that we already know about. Such a study cannot conclusively say “These two products are nutritially equivilant with any accuracy. It can only say, “When measuring those nutrients which we already know about, the two tomatoes are about the same. However, they do not taste the same, so obviously, there is something different about them, we just don’t know what it is or what role that element plays in nutrition.”

Scientists found that tomatoes seem to help fight prostate cancer. They believed they isolated a compound called Lycopene as the effective nutrient.
However, when they did experiments with rats infected with prostate cancer they found that:

After 22 weeks, when the rats’ were sacrificed and their prostate tumors weighed, the 10% tomato/broccoli combination was shown to greatly outperform all other diets, shrinking prostate tumors by 52%.
Broccoli alone decreased tumor weight by 42%, and tomato alone by 34%.
Lycopene alone (23 or 224 nmol/g diet) came in last, reducing tumor weight by 7% and 18% respectively.

The history of baby formula is a frightening example of scientists mistakenly thinking they’ve created a duplicate product, one that contains all the same nutritional value as the real thing, mother’s milk. The earliest ‘scientific’ versions of artificial baby milk resulted in deaths, malnutrition, and failure to thrive. Scientists continue to study the matter and try to revise formulas so that ABM duplicates breastmilk. They get closer, and the product has definitely improved over time- and it’s now good enough that it’s an adequate substitute when a baby cannot get mother’s milk. But the fact remains, breastfed babies still do better and nobody really knows precisely why, nobody knows exactly what’s missing.

Artificial baby milk is sometimes the only choice, but the fact remains that science has not yet managed to identify and recreate everything in breastmilk.

It’s no different for most other foods we eat.

The Premise of a Tomato, Part the First
The Premise of a Tomato, Part the Second
The Premise of a Tomato, Part the Third

The Premise of a Tomato, Part the Fourth

The Premise of a Tomato, Part the Fifth

 You may also enjoy:

Notes from The Omnivore’s Dilemma 
Notes on food and puritanism from In Defense of Food
Food and Politics (from In Defense of Food)
The Politics of Food and Nutrition (from In Defense of Food)
More comments in response to reading In Defense of Food- POlitics, food, and do-gooders

Organic vs Conventional Eggs
Reading labels

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5 Comments

  1. shelbykat
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I definitely agree about the taste of homegrown tomatoes, and that breastmilk as always superior (although thank the Lord that formula was invented for those cases in which it truly is needed), but I had never thought about the rest of it. Very interesting–thanks.

  2. Rachel
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    About breastmilk, I had supply issues when I nursed my son (for a variety of reasons I don't want to discuss here. Suffice it to say that I spent those ten months centering my life on maintaining and enhancing my supply). My doctor was convinced that my son's slow weight gain had to do with my milk being "bad" and pressured me to switch to formula. I changed doctors. But it had become apparent that I needed to supplement.

    The first formula I tried triggered an immediate allergic reaction when my son consumed about 1/2 ounce. He then had an upset stomach for the following 48 hours. I told the doctor what happened and he insisted that it must have been my milk (something I ate, even though I had eaten nothing unusual) because "formula is chemically identical to breastmilk." My protestation that one of the first ingredients in the formula was HFCS and that I don't lactate that substance was utterly without traction.

    I did eventually find a formula that did not cause an allergic reaction, but my son never felt full when he consumed it. He did get full on breastmilk when I had enough for a feeding. With the formula he just ate all day. Ultimately, I switched to homemade formula that was goat milk based (old family recipe) as the supplement. My son actually got full on that stuff. He gained weight and thrived. It also made him less uncomfortable in the, ahem, exit process. Naturally, it was a far cry from breastmilk, but it was apparent to me that anything made from ingredients I could pronounce, especially ones intended for a similar process (milk is created to feed babies, whether the baby is a person or a goat), made all the difference in the world

  3. anna
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    I have to dispute your analogy of baby formula to tomatoes. Baby formula is essentially a recipe, wherein you put certain things into a vat, and voila a finished product. A tomato, even the most inferior of orange tennis balls, is still grown from a seed in the dirt. A human can't manufacture it in a test tube.

  4. DHM
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    I was thinking more of our attempts to identify and measure what is in a tomato, in the same way there is an attempt to identify and measure what is in breastmilk. In conventionally grown tomatoes we are told there is no nutritional difference between them and home-grown, yet obviously there is.

  5. DHM
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I had to switch to formula for one of my babies, too, so I sympathize. I am shocked that you doctor insisted that formula and breastmilk are chemically identical. Wow.

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