U.S.: FDA completed review of bioengineered high-antioxidant purple tomatoes
The FDA has completed the review process to start marketing in the U.S. of high antioxidant purple tomatoes, developed over the last 15 years in the UK. Trying to use science to make fruits and vegetables more nutritious, Professor Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli from the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, England, researched what determines the different nutrients in produce.
At the same time Jonathan Jones, researched disease resistance in plants, in an effort to make fruit production more sustainable by reducing food losses to pests and diseases while reducing pesticide use in farming.
“Those are the two innovative starting points that got the company started in 2007, and it's taken this long to get to the point of getting the product out to the market,” says Nathan Pumplin, CEO of Norfolk Healthy Produce.
Purple tomato variety is a licensed variety, proprietary to Norfolk Plant Sciences, currently being marketed exclusively in U.S. restaurants in a few areas. It will be test marketed in retail stores in 2024. In 2025, the company will start looking at further expansion.
Why the U.S.?
“The U.S. has been the focus because it had a very clear regulatory path where the tomato could be reviewed by government agencies for safety, any environmental or human health concerns,” says Pumplin.
As a GM food, purple tomatoes must go through an extensive reviewing process in order to be approved for consumption, these products are put under a lot more scrutiny. That was by far the slowest part of the process for Norfolk because it had to gather all product data for it to be reviewed by regulatory agencies.
“If you develop a conventional product, one that is made by conventional breeding, you don't need to go through this whole process, even though you bring in a lot more biodiversity than you do with bioengineering,” indicates Pumplin.
For tomatoes in particular, the brown rugose virus is a huge concern and it’s very time-consuming to develop a variety that is resistant to the virus using conventional methods. It’s much faster using biotechnology, although the regulatory part is much slower.
“Purple tomatoes have actually been reviewed much, much more than any conventional variety,” adds Pumplin.
What makes purple tomatoes special?
First, as Pumplin indicates, “We have a product that is so differentiated, it is dark, dark purple on the outside and inside, it is unlike any tomato that anyone has ever seen before.”
What gives this tomato its strong purple color is the high level of antioxidants, caused by pigments called anthocyanin, with the same biomolecules found in blueberries, blackberries, and pomegranates, among others.
Skepticism of GM foods
Norfolk anticipated some skepticism regarding its product because of the way it is developed.
“We expected much longer timelines of when we would be going to market because we are cognizant of the GM sensitivities that are pervasive in popular culture here in the United States and other countries. However, we haven't encountered that almost at all, and though it has been somewhat surprising, it's maybe indicative of the rising tide of biotechnology and scientific acceptance across industries, not only in food and agriculture but also in healthcare and life sciences coming out of the pandemic,” says Jessica Louie, CTO, Norfolk Healthy Produce.
Louie believes that it also shows the sensitivity to sustainability and climate change, an essential part in the development of this product.
“When we think about nutritional benefits, we've had access to genetic modification, genetic engineering and biotechnology for decades, so with purple tomatoes, we want to start pecking away at that negative perception both regulatory and from consumers,” says Louie.
What does it taste like?
To the surprise of many who have already tasted this fruit, it simply tastes like a grape cherry tomato.
Not only does it's sweetness and low acidity give it a great tomato flavor, but it also has the same consistency, a “very good consistency, juicy and with the pop that people want,” indicates Pumplin.
Ongoing consumer research has helped Norfolk understand its consumer base, and as part of their launch plan, the company has performed a number of product reveals in events, starting in the synthetic biology community and working outwards.
“From there, we’ve progressed into more mainstream consumption in restaurants throughout the country, including California, Boston, North Carolina, and some areas in the middle of the country in order to get a broad sense of who our future consumers will be as we go to market,” says Louie.
Essentially, what Norfolk and the entire produce industry is working towards is increasing fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, taking the opportunity that there is a lot of room for new products and customer appetite to eat what is referred to as “the rainbow,” a balanced diet with different nutrients, different colors, and flavor profiles from the food that they get.
“We don’t see this as competing against red tomatoes, rather it's something that’s gonna raise up the whole produce industry,” assures Pumplin.
Norfolk is still cautious about how much they talk about the potential to grow and market purple tomatoes outside of the U.S.
However, Pumplin did tell FreshFruitPortal.com that “there is a lot of interest from companies in other countries on our product. What we are looking at is: where are there companies that want to work with us and there is a regulatory pathway to actually bring our product to market.”
Norfolk is, however, focused as much as it can on local production for local markets.