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Tomato's original colour was orange and now it's making a superfood comebackqrcode

Nov. 4, 2019

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Nov. 4, 2019
Horticulturalist Margot White and authors Janice Sutton and Penny Woodward. (ABC Rural: Eden Hynninen)

You say 'to-may-to', I say 'to-mah-to', but most don't say 'orange' when describing the popular fruit.

The orange — or golden — tomato is believed to be the first ever tomato, exported from Mexico to the rest of the world 500 years ago.

According to New Zealand scientists at Heritage Food Crops Research Trust (HFCRT), these tomatoes may be a superfood that has amazing health benefits when eaten both raw or cooked.

Over the centuries, cross-breeding and consumer appeal turned the fruit from orange to red, where it mainly stayed.

Move to orange

A Tasmanian horticulturalist has tracked down and imported over 30 varieties of the original tomato family.

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens horticulturalist Margot White has been in touch with New Zealand scientists at HFCRT who have been researching the original orange varieties and their health benefits.

"They found the orange varieties contained a different form of lycopene, a photochemical that gives a red tomato its colour," Ms White said.

"In orange tomatoes it's called cis-lycopene. Lycopene is not easily absorbed by the human body, but cis-lycopene is and can help prevent heart disease and certain cancers, like prostate cancer."

Ms White has been able to get hold of 37 varieties of the orange tomato family from HFCRT and import them into Australia.

"They all got their biosecurity and sanitary certificates and we are now able to sell them to the public," she said.

HFCRT's Mark Christensen is a researcher with a passion for tomatoes and their origins.

He said since 2007, HFCRT scientists have chemically analysed over 500 tomato varieties from around the world.

"We simply want to discover the truth and find the best varieties we can for human health.

"The tomato is one of the most heavily bred food varieties in the world and over that 500 years, the original orange tomato was crossed with a tiny red tomato that was probably found off the coast of Peru," he said.

Where can I buy orange tomatoes?

Researchers in New Zealand have found orange tomatoes contain high levels of cis-lycopene, a phytochemical that helps prevent cancer and other diseases. (Supplied: Heritage Food Crops Research Trust)

"When man interferes in the process and breeds, the original compounds in tomatoes reduce or disappear altogether."

He said the changes in climate would mean the tomatoes would need time to adapt to the Tasmanian temperatures.

"It will take some time for these varieties to adapt to the Tasmanian climate, but I encourage growers to persevere.

"The cis-lycopene provides benefits and can help in the fight against cancers and disease, along with increasing sperm counts," he said.

"Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant, potentially inhibiting the damage caused by the oxidation of the sperm - which is known to cause male fertility problems."

Ms White said she expected it would take a couple of years before customers could purchase the seeds.

"Eventually the seed will be available to mainland growers and seed suppliers.

"This will take two seasons. One to collect the seed then the next summer to make sure the seed collected was true to type," she said.

ABC's Organic Gardener Magazine horticultural editor Penny Woodward is working alongside Ms White and has written about the benefits of the orange tomato.

"There are some orange tomatoes in Australia, but we don't know if they have cis-lycopene or beta carotene that carrots contain to make them orange.

"Many of these varieties Margot has imported are coming here for the first time," Ms Woodward said.

Eight and a half times more absorbable

"This cis-lycopene golden tomato is eight and half times more absorbable than the red lycopene.

"As a result of the work Margot has done over the past 10 years, she has increased the number of heirlooms tomatoes in Australia by about 400 per cent.

"Even businesses have started up because of this. You can now get more heirloom tomatoes than ever before."

Ms White has sold orange tomato seedlings to two specialist growers and seed collectors in Tasmania and said the public will be able to buy seeds in the near future.

Seed Freaks in Tasmania is one of them, and owner Linda Cockburn said she wanted to encourage heirloom production.

"We've lost 93 per cent of heirloom varieties and releasing them into the community means many people will be able to save the seeds and keep these rare varieties alive and kicking."

Source: ABC

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