The Tomato as a Sweet

Well sure, why not? It’s a fruit after all, just a big plump berry. Oh yes I understand that it tastes more like what people think of as a vegetable, but there are lots of berries like that: cucumbers, peas, squash, even beans.

The real question is why doesn’t a tomato taste like the berry that it is? Mostly because the tomato is so low in sugar compared to other berries. Your typical farm stand tomato has about as much sugar as a Brussels sprout. On the other hand it’s high in acid, like many fruits. The problem is that a higher than normal proportion of that acid is glutamic acid. And if that word is evocative of the word glutamate to you, it’s because glutamic acid and glutamates are pretty much the same thing (glutamates are salts of glutamic acid).

But what exactly are glutamates? The answer: savory-tasting chemical compounds that stimulate the umami (meaty) taste receptors on the tongue. They are found of course in meat, but also in fermented foods like bread, cheese and pickles. They’re the main reason tomatoes marry so well with steaks. They’re also the main reason tomatoes aren’t a perfect fit in a sweet context. The vaguely meaty impression is something of a curve ball, and it keeps some people from enjoying tomatoes in jam or pie form. I’m not among that crowd. I’ll take my tomatoes sweet or savory…pretty much any way I can get ’em.

6 thoughts on “The Tomato as a Sweet”

  1. I think you just ironed out what it is about tomatoes that I love.
    People get confused that I can eat them like apples. But now it makes sense… Thanks!

  2. Interesting and unexpected topic – I like it. You threw me off with that sweet tomato pie yesterday; we ate savory ones growing up (when the green tomatoes weren’t fried along with the okra, and creamed corn). I will never forget, when I went to Paris by myself at nineteen, having a sweet soufflé made with red peppers and onions and tomatoes. I was too young and foolish to ask how it was made, but it was delicious.

    1. Thanks, Naomi!

      And that sounds excellent. All those fruit/veggies either go well with sugar or have a lot of it. Very neat idea. I may have to try that some time!


      – Joe

  3. I (and my GERD-ridden digestive tract) has always considered tomato to be high-acid as you mention… so why is it that canned tomato need to be acidified? That always seemed odd to me, but I seem to muddle through life without a proper piece of litmus paper. Enquiring minds want to know!

    1. Hehe…hey Brian! Didn’t know that — and sorry to hear it!

      Ripe tomatoes are acidified because the acidity of the fruit falls off as it ripens. The extra acid is a safety measure. Green tomatoes generally don’t need the extra acid since they’re at full strength when they go in the jar.

      Hope that helps!

      – Joe

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