A bowl of tomato soup. What could be simpler?
Just go to the store, grab a can, pop it open, heat it up on the stove or in the microwave, and you’re good to go. To all appearances, it’s about as low-tech as you can get. But in reality, the amount of technology that has gone into creating this simple meal is amazing.
Over the past several years, billions of dollars have been poured into the ongoing research and development effort to improve the ingredients of this perennial favorite. But few would know it.
More than 80% of Americans live in urban areas where food is not the product of their land but instead just appears on the shelves of the local supermarket. Only 1.6% of Americans today are directly employed in agriculture, which is less than half as many compared to 30 years ago. The change is a direct result of technology advances that allow ingredients to be grown faster and better than ever before.
When it comes to tomato soup, those ingredients are: tomatoes, corn as a sweetener, wheat flour, and water along with a small amount of preservatives, salt, and other flavor enhancers. Modern agriculture invests a great deal of time, money, and effort in perfecting the process of growing advanced tomatoes, corn, and wheat. This pays off for farmers and consumers alike.
For centuries, farmers have been breeding plants to meet a variety of needs. At the simplest level, the farmer will want high yields for his crops so that more product can be delivered at a lower cost. Food processors want high-quality fruit that’s less prone to rot. The chef is after the variety with the best taste. The consumer wants it all: low price, freshness, taste, and a pleasing color.
Meeting these demands used to be a process of guesswork. Farmers have been breeding plants for centuries, using techniques not so different from those Gregor Mendel used in his 19th-century experiments with peapods. Today, hundreds of thousands of tomato, corn, and wheat plants are grown around the world in field trials designed to improve the breed.
These efforts are growing ever more sophisticated thanks to the combined insights of modern genetics and data analytics that are replacing guesswork with hard science.
In 2012, scientists published the tomato’s genome, the culmination of an eight-year international project to sequence the fruit’s genetic blueprint. The tomato’s 30,000 genes determine its potential, with an effectively infinite possible combination of genes. Thanks to the power of modern computers and data analytics, plant breeders can use simulation and modeling to determine which of these combinations is most likely to produce the desired tomato characteristics.
The expansion in genetic understanding has also increased the sophistication of the characteristics being sought. For instance, plant growing is a seasonal endeavor with a limited window for the harvest. Processing facilities just can’t have millions of tons of raw tomatoes showing up at the loading dock on the same day that happens to be optimal for harvesting. Thus, tomato shipments must be coordinated, and the growing times adjusted, to ensure no tomatoes go to waste.
Geneticists have made all of this easier by developing "extended field storage" tomato varieties that can better handle hot temperatures and other difficulties that arise when ripe plants are left on the vine, waiting for space to open up in the processing facility. Leaving tomatoes in the field, however, introduces changes in the tomato, such as an increase pH levels in the fruit caused when acids leave through respiration.
Food processors don’t want a product with higher pH levels, so breeders must counter this effect by creating extended-storage tomato varieties with inherently lower pH levels.
Likewise, breeders can also work with soup makers to ensure the seeds used to grow tomatoes are designed to bring about just the right taste in the final product. This is done by balancing the levels of acidity and sugars in the tomato, as determined by experts conducting taste screenings during the breeding trials—something likely to become increasingly common in the near future.
With the optimal seed varieties in hand, farmers can make the most of advanced harvesting machinery, drones, sensors, and satellite systems to leverage data in a way that optimizes the application of water, fertilizer, and other inputs to ensure their specialized tomato seeds grow into healthy and strong plants in an economical fashion.
This is about more than money. Precision agriculture conserves water, which is particularly important in California where 9 out of 10 tomatoes destined to appear in soup and like products are grown, and where fresh water is scarce. It also minimizes nitrogen use, which is better for the environment.
But the innovation doesn’t stop in the fields. DNA profiling has emerged as one of the most promising advances in food safety. Various DNA fingerprinting techniques allow for the identification of bacteria, mold, and fungus on fruit and processing equipment. Detection of contamination is critical to maintaining hygiene from the vine to the consumer.
Likewise, the equipment itself is becoming more high-tech. The old-fashioned method of canning in the home involved heating the tomatoes to the point of boiling, pouring them in a jar, and allowing the heat of the container to "pop" the lid, creating a seal. This "kettle canning" method was particularly dangerous, as the pH level of tomatoes encourages bacterial growth. Unless enough heat was used in the process, the pathogens thrived.
Industrial canning techniques are obviously more advanced, but they boil down to the use of ordinary heating processes. Ohmic heating, on the other hand, has reemerged as an exciting alternative. It works by passing electric current through the tomato soup liquid, which resists the current, converting electrical energy into heat energy. This process cooks and sterilizes the food quickly and safely, in a manner less likely to affect the soup’s color or nutritional content than relying on the heat transfer that takes place by heating up the wall of a large, stainless-steel container.
Ohmic principles have been known for quite some time, but it appears to be the wave of the future. NASA, for example, has been developing a self-contained Ohmic tomato soup packet that will allow astronauts to safely reheat meals during long-term missions.
Quite a bit of space-age R&D goes into every can of tomato soup, making it tastier, healthier, and safer than ever—at a bargain price. In inflation-adjusted terms, the price of tomato paste has been sliced in half, thanks to all the engineering that goes into each can.
Joseph Byrum is senior R&D and strategic marketing executive in life sciences—global product development, innovation, and delivery at Syngenta.