SALEM, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers are fine-tuning a purple tomato, a new blend of colors and nutrients. The skin is as dark as an eggplant.
But it doesn't just look cool, it could be better for you.
The novel pigment contains the same phytochemical found in blueberries that is thought to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
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Six years in the making, the purple hybrid could hit salad plates in two years.
Genetic origins are not at issue. The purple tomato traces its roots to a wild species in South America, not a petri dish.
Jim Myers, the Oregon State professor overseeing the project, said he doesn't see it changing the world, but it may entice gardeners and commercial growers to try it.
Although locals can't buy the hybrids yet, several got to sample them at farmers' markets this summer, and a handful got a sneak peek at a local nursery.
Barbara Taylor of Monmouth, Ore., marveled at its color when she saw the tomato last month.
"Wow," she said. "It's definitely different."
It will be the first true purple tomato, Myers said, although a few heirlooms offer whispers of a muddy purple caused when pink fruit meets green skin.
Local tasters give mixed reviews, but researchers are working on a cross with the popular Sungold cherry tomatoes to boost the flavor.
That hybrid won't be ready for several years.
Hundreds of years ago, explorers discovered purple tomatoes in the wild, but the species never made it to the table because the fruit was small and some were poisonous, as all tomatoes once were thought to be.
In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists collected seeds from purple tomatoes and bred them with modern hybrids, making them safe to eat.
The research lagged until Oregon State graduate student Carl Jones resumed the work in 2000 on a hunch about the tomatoes' nutritional value.
Jones discovered that the purple tomato, unlike its red cousins, contained high levels of anthocyanins, a chemical found in dark fruit pigments such as blueberries and grapes that can act as an antioxidant.
Despite six years of research and three generations of purple tomatoes, Oregon State's hybrid might not be first.
Professional seed producers have started developing their own purple tomato after hearing news of Oregon State's project.
Among them is former Oregon State graduate student Peter Mes, who worked on the school's project through 2004. Now he's a tomato breeder at Sakata Seed America and the school's closest competitor for the great grape-colored tomato.
Oregon State needs at least two more years to inbreed the tomato line in the field and stabilize its characteristics before releasing a variety. Mes says so does he.
Oregon State developed the purple tomato to promote health, but it's the color that will draw the most fame, said Rose Marie Nichols McGee, the owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Ore.
Gardeners and consumers seek out unusual produce colors such as orange cauliflower and purple carrots, she said.
"I think we respond to something that looks a little bit different," she said. "It just catches our curiosity."