The tomato, one of Virginia's top products, is a multimillion-dollar business in the commonwealth and is incredibly nutrient-dense, boasting vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and other benefits valuable to human health.
Among the tomato varieties, cherry tomatoes are gaining popularity among consumers of all ages because they offer outstanding health benefits and are perfect for snacking and salads. Cherry tomatoes require little space for abundant production, which makes cultivation feasible for conventional fields, home gardens, and high-tech controlled-environment agriculture facilities.
In partnership with Virginia State University and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, researchers in the Department of Food Science and Technology and the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences will study the flavor and shelf life of field- and indoor-produced cherry tomatoes to maximize their growth in controlled environments.
"Flavor, along with shelf life, is critical in meeting consumers' expectations of cherry tomato quality," said Yun Yin, project lead and assistant professor of food science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "Indoor agriculture brings a lot of different aspects to the traditional food production systems. It is more resource efficient, has reduced concerns with pesticides, and enables community access to fresh produce."
The rapidly growing controlled-environment agriculture industry in Virginia enables sustainable crop cultivation with reduced resources and indoor growing spaces, increases access to produce by reducing physical crop acreage due to the vertical growing method and provides a consistent year-round supply free of environmental factors.
"Our preliminary research shows that cherry tomatoes produced indoors have a relatively longer shelf life but not as much flavor as field-grown varieties," Yun said. "Flavor plays an enormous role in consumer acceptance, and we are studying ways to boost the flavor of this economically important crop in Virginia."
Researchers will analyze the tasting components, such as sugars and acids, as well as health-benefiting bioactive compounds using liquid chromatography. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry coupled with an olfactory detection port is a powerful method to measure predominant compounds contributing to cherry tomato aroma profiles.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are funding the research through the specialty crop block grant program that awarded a number of grants to the college.