Scientists in Brazil and Ireland plan to use genome engineering techniques to produce in tomatoes the same elements that make chili peppers hot, according to an article published in the journal Trends in Plant Science.
Pungent dishes are common in many countries, and capsaicinoids — the class of compounds that give chiles their heat — are associated with health benefits, the researchers said. As a result, activating them in a "more amenable species such as tomato could be the next step in the fascinating story of pungent crops."
In addition to widening the appeal of a functional tomato to consumers, the research could help standardize the amount of capsaicinoids in peppers, Fortune pointed out. A spicy tomato also might make larger amounts of the spice available and for a lower price, the magazine reported.
The scientists indicated they're targeting the tomato as a potential spice delivery vehicle because the fruit has a full suite of accommodating genes for pungency, a greater yield than chili peppers and are "a well-established model species that is highly amenable to biotechnological manipulation." There also are small varieties of tomatoes that are available and can be quickly grown in large numbers in reduced areas, they added.
If researchers are successful, a new tomato with a kick could prove popular since hot and spicy foods and beverages are riding high in current consumer trends. Millennials are particularly fond of spicy foods and beverages, and some baby boomers appreciate a bit more heat to perk up their taste buds. A Mintel study in 2015 found 80% of millennials are interested in more spices from peppers and chilies in their food.
Heat from spicy ingredients is showing up across a growing number of products, including those in the dairy department. More spicy additions are expected in ice cream, yogurt and flavored milk in the future.
Hot Scream has experienced success with its lineup of spicy ice cream, while Chobani has introduced low-fat yogurt in Sriracha-mango and chipotle-pineapple flavors. Sweet treats also have seen some spicy additions, with Mondelez rolling out spicy chicken wing and wasabi Oreos in China and Mars recently debuting a Spicy Snickers bar there using Sichuan peppercorn.
Spicy tomatoes could find a home on sandwiches, on burgers, in pasta sauce recipes and anywhere additional heat could add culinary interest. They also might also find their way into beverages such as tomato juice, vegetable beverage blends, smoothies and other applications.
However, it's possible some consumers would avoid a genetically modified tomato if it's produced using the CRISPR gene-editing process. Despite the potential advantages of the technology, many U.S. consumers remain leery of genetically modified organisms and prefer their food and beverage ingredients without them. They may have similar concerns about changing the genetic coding of food. Many people prefer their food to be natural and oppose any changes to it, while others could be squeamish about having it altered.
CRISPR allows researchers to quickly and accurately pinpoint areas inside the genome of crops such as corn, soybeans, strawberries or apples. The tool can then manipulate DNA to make the crops sweeter or more flavorful, increase their tolerance to drought and floods, or extend their shelf life.
Still, adventurous consumers may seek out the spicy tomato if and when it arrives in retail markets since the interest in exotic flavor experiences is extending more often to fresh produce. Social media also is playing a role, with recipe-sharing consumers more aware of these innovative items, especially among millennials. It's easy to look up ways to serve exotic produce online, and people are more often taking advantage of the opportunity. It may not be long before a new tomato variety is on the ingredients list.