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Purple power

When you think of tomato colors, red is typically what first comes to mind. But a new biotech purple tomato variety just may have you think­ing twice.

Fresh on the scene, the “Big Purple Tomato” from Norfolk Plant Sciences has been modified to change its color, extend its shelf life and improve its nutritional quality. And it could soon be hitting the market after ap­proval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service last fall.

It’s just one more evolution in the fascinating history of the tomato and its uses, varieties and colors. The first tomatoes cultivated in Mexico by the Nahua and Maya civilizations were green, yellow and orange. The fruit was introduced to Spain in the early 16th century by the conquis­tadors and made its way to the Middle East and Italy before spreading worldwide.

Through traditional cross-breeding methods, colors and varieties of tomato have grown along with traits such as disease resistance and longer shelf life. As Heinz ketchup and Campbell’s Soup drove American tomato consumption in the 20th century, plant breeders developed a hardy, tough-skinned tomato that could be harvested by machines.

Although there are other purple tomatoes on the market, the Norfolk Plant Sciences variety is different. Through genetic modification, this purple tomato is designed to have the same nutrients as conventional varieties while providing high levels of anthocyanin, the antioxidant-rich pigment that gives eggplants, blackberries and blueberries their deep shades of blue and purple.

The purple tomato is the brainchild of British biochemist Cathie Martin, who has spent two decades in research and almost 15 years gaining its regulatory approval. It will be the first GMO tomato on the market since 1994, when the Flavr Savr was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Touted to have extended shelf life, the Flavr Savr tomato was not a commercial success and was ultimately taken off the shelves in 1997.

The introduction of anthocyanin doesn’t change the traditional tomato taste, Martin said, and her research also found that the GMO purple toma­toes have a shelf life twice as long as a standard tomato.

The next steps are FDA approval and commercialization, which could happen as early as this spring. Norfolk will begin to launch limited test markets this year to identify which consumers are most interested in purple tomatoes. Visit for more information.

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