8 Reasons Never to Buy Another Winter Tomato

That pretty little red orb hides a lot of dirty secrets. I just finished reading Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, and am profoundly unsettled. If you’ve bought a supermarket tomato in the dead of winter, odds are that it came from Florida. (But don’t worry — if it came from Mexico, it has its own host of problems.) The conditions that produced it are so appalling that I am never buying another out of state, out of season tomato. Here’s why.

  1. They’re tasteless. Pretty and red, yes. But also mealy with, at most, a slight watery tartness to them. Compared to the full glory of a summer ripened tomato that explodes with flavor and juice when you bite, winter tomatoes are so disappointing that they hardly merit the name. Why are they tasteless? Tomatoes that have been bred for travel are picked green and gassed with ethylene until they turn a beautiful, uniform red. They are bred for toughness and uniformity, not taste. Apparently you can drop kick one across the room without bruising one. You could probably give someone a concussion if you lobbed one of these.
  2. They are less nutritious. Not just tomatoes, but many conventionally grown crops have lower vitamin levels than they used to 50 years ago —  due to both selective breeding and the heavy use of chemicals. Modern tomatoes, which have been bred for looks and hardiness, have lost iron, calcium, and vitamin A — but have 14 times more sodium.
  3. Florida tomatoes are doused with  five times as much fungicide and six times as much pesticide as California tomatoes. Florida is a crappy place to grow tomatoes, yet it produces 1/3 of all tomatoes available in the US, and most of the off-season ones. Tomatoes like warm, fairly dry weather. Florida is warm, but it’s also humid. The soil is essentially sand, so nutrition has to be pumped in, and the humidity gives rise to lots of nematodes, insects, and weeds that aren’t killed off every winter. Because it’s so far from being an ideal place to grow tomatoes, farmers end up spraying their crops with some of the deadliest pesticides known to man — and lots of them.
  4. They travel far. There are so many good reasons to buy local: you’re supporting your local economy, you get to develop relationships with your local growers, you don’t rack up the carbon footprint of food from far away, and locally grown food generally tastes better. Whether your winter tomatoes are coming from Canadian hothouses, Mexican hydroponic plantations, or Floridan fields, they’re using up a lot of oil to get to you. And they don’t even taste good.
  5. If your winter tomato comes from Florida, it leaves behind a long trail of human rights abuses. Being a farm laborer is crappy wherever you are in this country, but Florida seems to be one of the worst places, with the fewest protections and support for laborers. In some cases, the tomato industry has become outright slavery. The heavy and poorly regulated use of pesticides on tomato fields has caused chronic illness and debilitating birth defects among the children of laborers.
  6. If your winter tomato comes from Mexico, you might want to read this article on how organic tomatoes raised for export in Mexico are sucking wells dry and preventing small farmers from raising the crops they need in order to eat. Sound familiar? Oh yeah, similar story with bananas, coffee, chocolate…
  7. It’s not hard to grow or preserve your bounty of  summer tomatoes. My mom literally just sticks extra tomatoes in the freezer. Freezing does change the texture, but in the winter, tomatoes go into soups and sauces and recipes that don’t require the crispness of fresh tomatoes. I also freezer-canned a few jars of roasted tomato and garlic sauce (definitely should have made more of that), and of course, you can do real water bath or pressure canning.
  8. There’s a steep price for being able to eat the same foods year round. The cost is tallied in oil, pesticides, social justice, and taste. Is it really worth it for that bland supermarket tomato?

Unfortunately, it’s not just about refusing to buy tomatoes in the winter. Restaurants and fast food joints continue to use them, and I admit that one of my occasional indulgences is an In-N-Out grilled cheese (animal style!), with its requisite slice of tomato. Now that I know the story behind the tomato in my sandwich, will I stop going? Request that they leave it out? I haven’t decided yet.

If you’re interested in the story of tomatoes, I suggest you check out Tomatoland for yourself. Prepare to be appalled.

Do you buy tomatoes in the winter? Will you stop?

Photo by La Grande Farmers’ Market

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38 responses to this post.

  1. Am now eyeing my Francesco Rinaldi “To Be Healthy” pasta sauce with suspicion. :(

    Reply

    • Hi Donn,

      Apparently tomatoes for tomato sauce are mostly grown in California (and since they don’t have far or long to go before being turned into sauce, the tomatoes are picked when ripe). Tomatoland didn’t really touch on the California tomato industry, but it probably has the same human rights and ecological problems our whole agricultural system does. There’s no real way to get out of that one unless you grow your own or shop exclusively from small local growers.

      Reply

  2. Totally with you on this one. I don’t think I’ve purchased a supermarket tomato in years. They just taste disgusting to me. I finally finished using all of the garden tomatoes last week. How crazy is that? I guess that’s what happens when you have to pick them all completely green. Anyhow, they made an excellent tomato soup, which I have literally gallons of in the freezer, not to mention the marinara,

    Reply

    • Hi Cat,

      I agree, supermarket tomatoes are gross, even in the summer! I buy a couple each year if I’ve missed the farmers’ market and neeeeed a tomato for a recipe (can’t make a caprese salad without one), but they’re always disappointing. My mother keeps me fairly well supplied, but she’s not into the crazy heirloom varieties that seem like they’d be the most fun.

      I’ve never known what to do with green tomatoes, but apparently you can fry them. ;-) I’d like to be able to grow my own tomatoes. Some day I will have a little land to garden with!

      Reply

      • Well, green tomatoes will ripen nicely inside, but they don’t get nice and sweet unless they’ve had at least some ripening time on the vine. So I usually use the indoor ripened ones for soup or marinara. But this year I had a HUGE crop of tomatoes that had to be picked completely green, so I made a green tomato and apple chutney that was totally delicious! I’ve still got a pile of that in the freezer too.

        Don’t know if you have a patio or not, but there are some varieties of tomatoes that will grow nicely in containers. My best friend tried the upside down hanging tomato plant deal and it actually worked really well.

        I have never explored heirloom varieties either. In theory you have to use the heirloom ones in order to save the seeds and get plants from them the next year, but I suppose ignorance is bliss, because I’ve been doing it with regular tomatoes for years now with great results.

        Reply

        • Posted by MonicaC on 09/20/2013 at 19:48

          Ha–I guess someone forgot to tell your tomatoes they’re supposed to revert to their bad-tasting parents.

          Reply

  3. Posted by bitt on 01/17/2012 at 10:45

    What if you live in Florida and get a local organic one? I think your ideas are great for Northerners, but for those of us down south, stuff is actually in season this time of year, and we need to take advantage.

    Reply

    • Hi Bitt,

      Of course that makes sense. :-) For most of the country, tomato season is long over, but if that’s not the case for you, definitely take advantage! Lucky you — my palate is already craving the variety of spring and summer produce.

      Reply

      • Posted by bitt on 01/17/2012 at 13:46

        Also up north I have found some local organic hydroponic tomatoes, that don’t taste as good, but are local! Some people are obsessed and have to have tomatoes all year round.

        Reply

        • Posted by Maria Orfan on 01/23/2012 at 10:26

          Are these the ones that hang upside down and are kept indoors? Can those be organic?

          Reply

  4. Love the tip about stashing the summer tomatoes straight away into the freezer. Love that!

    Reply

    • Hi Lisa,

      Yup, it’s a good tip for lazy cooks like me! I think a lot of people are scared to preserve food because it seems like it’s going to be a lot of work — when it’s often as simple as putting something in the freezer. :-)

      Reply

  5. The term I’ve heard is “bullet proof”. The modern tomato is optimized for shipping and a blemish free presentation, so flavor has gone out the wind in favor of resisting bruising during travel.

    If I can’t get local tomatoes (or if they’re too expensive) I go with canned tomatoes. They don’t need to look good nor survive shipping, so they can be selected for flavor. Their long shelf live means they can be canned from the summer bounty and sold in the winter. Whole tomatoes are better than diced on the theory that less processing is cheaper and there’s less mucking about with your vegetable. Just have a look at the ingredients list to make sure.

    Reply

    • Hi Michael,

      I don’t think I’d want to eat something described as ‘bullet-proof’! Yuck. I also buy diced tomatoes and tomato sauce from time to time. As I mentioned, I didn’t preserve nearly enough this summer, so I’m stuck using canned stuff until next summer. I have to say, however, that my homemade sauce tastes a whole lot better and also doesn’t come with the BPA concerns of canned tomatoes. But I didn’t plan well enough last summer, so canned it is.

      Reply

  6. Posted by maryk on 01/17/2012 at 19:54

    Freezing tomatoes decreases lycopene and other key nutrients in tomatoes. They are a fruit that hold their benifits only when canned…sorry!

    Reply

    • Hi MaryK,

      I’ve heard that lycopene is better absorbed in cooked tomatoes, so yes, canned, but also freshly made sauce and other cooked tomato-y things made with fresh tomatoes — which don’t have the drawback of BPA. I don’t avoid canned tomatoes and find them useful in the winter, but my preference in the summer will always be for eating fresh, ripe tomatoes, raw as well as cooked. I try not to worry too much about specific nutrients as long as I’m getting a good assortment of different fruits and vegetables in my diet.

      Reply

  7. Posted by Thomas on 01/18/2012 at 01:58

    Does America do anything good for Humanity and environment?

    Reply

    • Hi Thomas,

      There are lots of individuals and organizations doing their best to preserve wilderness, biodiversity, and social justice. Does it outweigh the collective harm that we, as a country, do? Nope. What gives me hope is that a lot of the harm we do is out of ignorance, and ignorance is fixable.

      Reply

  8. Why pick green only to freeze? I pick red and freeze whole after a quick wash. Usually in September and October…but sometimes earlier. They are great. They can be defrosted in the micro…or sliced frozen and used in sautees. They taste great. I use in soups and sauces and sauteed dishes with my frozen peppers…my organic onions and brown rice. All very refreshing in the cold of winter.

    I also grow one plnt…a Celebrity…inside every year. It remains in one South window(dining room) and blossoms and blooms all winter. Fruit begins the end of January or February and goes til May. Every month I put a little Bloom liquid on it after it begins to blossom. I live in Minnesota and the heat it gets….besides from the sun on sunny days…is from baseboard heating and a fireplace when going.

    My summer gardens are two raised beds that are providing me with many garden treats in the winter. Zucchini stays ready for bread making into January as well.

    There are ways to avoid the chemical tomatoes in the stores in the winter.

    Thomas….only if you do it yourself…and know what you are doing.

    Reply

    • Hi Judith,

      Your ideas for green tomatoes sound great! I don’t think I’ve ever had a green tomato. I tend to gobble up every last ripe tomato (grudgingly putting a few away for sauce) in the summer, and California autumns are mild enough that green tomatoes aren’t typically an issue.

      I don’t have any outdoor space and am excited to know that I can grow tomatoes indoors. I’ll have to look into it. Thanks!

      Reply

    • Posted by Stephanie on 01/18/2012 at 13:18

      I, too, am excited to know you can grow tomatoes indoors! How many hours of light per day do these gems need?

      Reply

  9. I saw this on Twitter. Great information to share, I knew they were not tasty and clearly modified to be available in the winter. Good info to pass on to my family. Thanks

    Reply

    • Thanks, Angela! I think some of the worst abuses in our admittedly crappy food industry happen because consumers just don’t know what actually happens to their food before they buy it. Information is good. :-)

      Reply

  10. Posted by Stephanie on 01/18/2012 at 13:15

    Thank you for this article and book recommendation. I’ve been thinking about learning how to can locally grown heirloom tomatoes for a while (among other produce). This just encourages me further. I was also unaware tomatoes froze so well!

    Reply

    • Thanks, Stephanie! If you don’t want to do real canning (water bath or pressure), you can always freezer can. I just make sauce, stick it in clean glass jars, label, and pop into the freezer for my next batch of pizza, pasta, or soup. I’m also looking into indoor tomato gardening. Apparently there are a few types that are especially good at self-pollinating, which would be a must indoors. And there are other fruits and vegetables that self-pollinate, too. Exciting!

      Reply

  11. Posted by Karen Hoff on 01/18/2012 at 21:40

    Wow, what an eye-opener. I buy tomatoes in winter, but I always cut them in half, douse them with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, put on basil, garlic, a few other things, and broil them. Sometimes I serve them like that, or I might just cut them up after they are cooked (and, therefore, have some taste) into the salad.

    What do you think cooking does as far as chemicals? Nuke them, make them worse, no effect?

    Reply

    • Hi Karen,

      Cooking usually affects the vitamin C levels of produce. If you boil vegetables and throw out the water, you’re also losing some minerals there. The argument for eating a raw or mostly raw diet comes from the belief that high heat destroys a lot of good stuff that makes us healthy. Cooked starches also contain small amounts of acrylamide, which is a known (if mild) carcinogen. However, cooking tomatoes makes the lycopene in them easier for our bodies to absorb. Personally, I’m not ready to abandon my oven or stove!

      Reply

  12. Posted by Rebecca on 01/19/2012 at 05:44

    I canned local tomatoes all Summer so I would have tomatoes all Winter. I also canned Dilled Green Tomatoes for my salads all Winter. The recipe said they would be good on salads, and it was right. I canned tomatoes till I was tired of canning tomatoes and then canned some more. The recipe for the canned Dilled Green Tomatoes came out of the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

    Reply

    • Hi Rebecca,

      What awesome foresight. :-) I think I put away about four jars of tomato and garlic sauce, and I ran out way before fall was even over. This summer I’m definitely going to make twice as much or more. Your dilled green tomatoes sound lovely. I’ll have to try some of the recipes that came with my Ball preserving kit.

      Reply

  13. Hell no, I don’t bother with fresh tomatoes out of season. Once I started growing them myself and eating them straight from the plant in August, I never wanted another overpriced piece of cardboard again. If I’m dying for a fresh garden salad in the dead of winter, I’ll settle for Ontario hothouse-grown cherry tomatoes, which aren’t bad (and grown relatively close to where I live). Otherwise it’s canned/jarred tomatoes for cooking.

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea,

      You’ll be happy to know that I didn’t discover anything too atrocious about Canadian grown tomatoes. It’s still much too far for tomatoes to travel to me, and I really only crave specific foods when they’re in season, so I’m resigned to a tomato-less winter and spring. I think part of the fun of salads is that they’re so open to seasonal variation. My favorite fall salad has perfectly ripe pears, tart dried cherries, candied pecans, baby greens, and a sprinkle of gorgonzola cheese. Now we’re in tangerine/orange season, so I should really look around for a recipe that uses blood oranges.

      Reply

  14. [...] Great post! 8 Reasons Never to Buy Another Winter Tomato [...]

    Reply

  15. Thanks for the info Jennifer. I’m a tomato lover and do buy them in the winter. Our CSA is still including them in our box. I’m very curious to know where they are coming from. They are NOT coming from around here! We have 6-8 inches of snow on the ground. We usually grow them and those are the best-so delicious.

    Reply

    • Hi Lori,

      Maybe your local farms have greenhouses? I’m not sure how else they would be getting local winter tomatoes! You could ask the coordinator if you’re really curious. I do like tomatoes and miss them in the winter, but I find that part of the appeal is in *not* being able to have them year round (or at least good ones). I always find myself really looking forward to the first crop of spring strawberries, or summer peaches, or autumn apples — just because they taste so good after a couple seasons without them! Kevin is more into having the same foods all year round (bananas, green apples, carrots…). I think it’s just the difference in the way we were brought up.

      Reply

  16. Posted by Maria Orfan on 01/23/2012 at 10:25

    Dr. Oz or Rachel Ray use SUN DRIED tomatoes, a search should give you several inexpensive, organic options. EZ Marinara:
    Sun Dried Tomatoes, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Onion, Garlic, Vinegar, Salt & Pepper to taste, and carefully blend in food processor to desired consistency.

    Reply

    • Hi Maria,

      I like sundried tomatoes as accents, but find them a bit strong to use all the time. I also think they taste strikingly different from fresh tomatoes. This summer, I’ll have to try adding just one or two to my pizza sauce to see what happens. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Reply

  17. Posted by J on 02/02/2012 at 10:04

    If you grow your own during the summer and live in California like me (northern to be exact so it should work anywhere that has a night-time temperature above 30 degrees and gets sun during most of the day), since we’re having unusually dry winters right now I was able to insulate my plants (grouped their pots all together and wrapped the whole thing in plastic sheeting) and have tomatoes growing fresh in my backyard until mid-December. They weren’t as good as the summer sun-ripened ones but they still tasted fresh and flavourful.

    Reply

  18. Posted by Sandra on 03/02/2014 at 06:06

    Good idea, unfortunately tomatoes are grown with chemicals and pesticides more than allowed, and all those chemicals turn into cancer or other illness. I am one of those people who adore tomatoes but in my country they say they use acid to make them red, so they put them in acid, apart from other pesticides and hormones. Its awful, poor us. I will try those frozen tomatoes surely, thank you for this article.
    Sandra from Albania.

    Reply

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