The USDA approves the genetically modified purple tomato

The USDA has approved the genetically modified purple tomato, clearing the way for the unique fruit to be sold in American stores next year.

The approval brings the purple tomato one step closer to widespread expansion. In addition to its unique color, purple tomatoes have health benefits and a longer shelf life than red garden tomatoes, scientists say.

Martin worked on pigment production in flowers for more than 20 years, he told CNN. “I wanted to start projects to see if there were any health benefits for this particular group of pigments,” he said.

The pigments that piqued Martin’s interest are anthocyanins, which give blueberries, blackberries and eggplants their rich blue-purple color. With funding from a German consortium, he decided to engineer tomatoes that were rich in anthocyanins, with the aim of “increasing the antioxidant capacity” of the fruit.

By comparing regular tomatoes to purple tomatoes, he could easily identify whether anthocyanins were associated with specific health benefits.

To engineer purple tomatoes, scientists used transcription factors from snapdragons to make tomatoes produce more anthocyanin, creating a vibrant purple color.

Martin and his colleagues published the first results of their research in 2008 in an article in Nature Biotechnology.

The results were “amazing,” he said. Cancer-prone mice that ate purple tomatoes lived about 30 percent longer than those that ate plain tomatoes, the study found.

Martin said there are “many explanations” as to why anthocyanin-rich tomatoes may have health benefits. “There are probably multiple mechanisms involved,” he said. “It’s not like a drug, where there is only one purpose. They have antioxidant power. It can also affect the composition of the microbiome, so it can better deal with the digestion of other nutrients.”

And in 2013, Martin and colleagues released a study showing that purple tomatoes lasted twice as long as their red cousins.
Martin created a spinout company, Norfolk Plant Sciences, to bring purple tomatoes to market. Nathan Pumplin, CEO of the US-based Norfolk-based commercial business, told CNN that the purple tomato “connects with people in this fundamental way.”

The distinctive purple color means “it takes no imagination to see that it’s different,” Pumplin said. “It really gives people a chance to make a choice.”

FDA approval and commercialization are the next steps

In the past, many attempts at genetically modified foods have focused on engineering crops that are more sustainable to produce, he added. But for consumers, the benefits of eating a genetically modified food are murky.

“It’s very abstract, it’s hard to understand,” Pumplin said. “But the purple tomato – you choose to eat it or you choose not to eat it.” The difference between the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) product and the unmodified tomato is significant, and the health benefits for consumers are also clear.

Pumplin says consumers are “warming up” to genetically modified foods around the world.

“We look at our society’s issues around sustainability, climate change, food and food-related health, and what’s clear from the response to our announcement is that it’s a really important issue for a lot of people,” he said. “I’m encouraged that many people are starting to look to biotechnology for important challenges.”

At the same time, “GMOs are not a silver bullet,” he said. “It’s a tool in our toolbox as plant scientists, as scientists, as agronomists, to improve our food production system.”

The next steps for the purple tomato are FDA approval and commercialization, Pumplin said. “We need to grow great, delicious purple tomatoes. We need to work with growers to produce and distribute them.”

Norfolk will begin launching limited test markets in 2023 to identify consumers of purple tomatoes.

As for the taste? A purple tomato is indistinguishable from your standard red tomato, Pumplin said.

“It has a great tomato,” he said.