While many people are suspicious of genetically modified foods, a new tomato just approved by the USDA has some special benefits: more nutrients, longer shelf life and a dazzling purple hue. The color adds more than just pizazz. These tomatoes are rich in anthocyanins, the same antioxidants that empurple blueberries and eggplants.

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USDA approval is a big step toward farmers growing and distributing the new tomato promoted by Norfolk Plant Sciences. A team of scientists developed the tomatoes, including British biochemist and professor Cathie Martin. Her tomato work follows more than 20 years of studying pigment production in flowers.

Related: USDA releases controversial GMO food label prototypes

“I wanted to start projects where we could look and see whether there were health benefits for this particular group of pigments,” she told CNN.

A German consortium funded Martin’s attempt to engineer antioxidant-rich tomatoes. She used transcription factors — proteins which regulate transcription of genes — from snapdragons to prompt tomatoes to up their anthocyanin production.

Then, Martin and her team compared the new purple tomatoes to standard red ones. According to their findings, cancer-prone mice lived about 30% longer if they ate purple instead of regular tomatoes. Those findings were published in Nature Biotechnology back in 2008, so the new tomatoes are a long time in the making.

Of course, people concerned about genetically engineered foods might not be won over by purple tomatoes. According to the Center for Food Safety, health risks of modified foods include toxicity, allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, immunosuppression, cancer and loss of nutrition.

But attitudes toward genetically engineered foods might be changing. According to Nathan Pumplin, CEO of Norfolk Plant Sciences’ U.S.-based commercial business, folks are warming up toward high-tech food.  

“We look at the problems facing our society as far as sustainability, climate change, health tied to diet and nutrition, and what’s clear from the response from our announcement is that it’s a really important topic to a lot of people,” he told CNN. “I’m encouraged that a lot of people are starting to relook at biotechnology in light of the important challenges.”

And, at least in this case, consumers won’t be tricked by secretly genetically modified foods, a pet peeve of anti-GMO folks. If you don’t want to consume a genetically-engineered tomato, don’t eat the purple one.


Lead image via Pixabay