Nutritionally a tomato is a tomato right? Wrong! A tomato, like all produce is a product of its environment. Because environments are so different the nutritional profile of a tomato is varied. Unlike widgets on an assembly line, tomatoes vary in their nutritional profile. They are unique.

The USDA has created and maintains a food Nutrient Database. This is the data used to create food labels. Indirectly, it also helps perpetuate a myth--a myth that says foods are basically standardized. In other words a tomato is a tomato is a tomato. This is not true and I will prove it to you in this article.


USDA Tomato Database

In reality the USDA database is a slow moving average of what is bought and sold in stores. How do I know? Because I called the USDA and asked them how they get their data. I was told that they do not have their own lab. Instead they buy produce in stores from around the country, send it to regional labs for nutrient analysis, and compile the data. Nutrients are averaged and every so often the database is updated if the nutrients change.

In truth there is a continuum of nutrients in tomatoes and all foods. The range is from very poor, poor, average, good, excellent, to outstanding nutrient density. In today's marketplace as long as the produce is not rotting or won't make you sick it is fine to sell.

continuum plant health 1000

The question that so desperately needs to be answered is what is Nutrient Density? How is it defined? One attempt is to use the USDA data and say "For every 1,000 calories worth of this produce how much vitamins and minerals does it contain. In other words nutrient density is defined as a score representing so many nutrients per so many calories. There are 2 problems with this definition.

  1. Foods are variable in there nutrient composition. Therefore the USDA data, which does not show this variation, should not set the standard.
  2. The carbohydrates (calories) and mineral content in produce rise and fall together. Thus the ratio between calories and minerals may not change that much from low quality to high quality.

Instead I am proposing that nutrient density in foods must be defined quantitatively. In other words how much nutrients are in 100 grams of these tomatoes vs. 100 grams of another tomato. Or to say it at the ground level: Nutrient Density = Nutrients per Bite of Food.

The USDA is useful as a reference to what average is but it does not indicate what nutrients should be present. If I was to ask you what is a Nutrient Dense Tomato in terms of quantifying minerals you couldn't define it and neither can I because it hasn't been defined. Nobody knows. What you would say is that it must taste good, really good. And it should have a strong tomato aroma. It should truly nourish the consumer and supply high levels of minerals and enzymes. The best indicator of quality is children. If they really like to eat raw produce you know you are on the right path.

Let's look at a couple of tomato samples and see how they analyze compared to the USDA reference.

Tomato test2

The first tomato was raised by Luke Lemmers as a demonstration plant. It was an unnamed open pollinated cherry tomato and raised outdoors. Our lab analyzed the soil and I made the fertility recommendations. Later our lab analyzed the tomatoes for nutrient density.

The second tomato sample came from our local grocery store. They were premium organic cherry tomatoes raised in a greenhouse in Mexico. You can also see how the USDA average compares to actual tomato samples.

Luke was picking 12-13 brix tomatoes but the sample he picked for the lab analysis had to ship through the mail so he chose tomatoes that were less than fully ripe. I imagine the same thing occurred with the organic greenhouse sample and most of the samples analyzed by the USDA.

The comparison shows that tomato nutrient density varies tremendously. This is just the tip of the iceberg for what we should see looking at the data coming out of the Tomato Project. By analyzing many samples from other tomato growers around the country we should be able to derive an initial standard of nutrient density for tomatoes.

Here is my prediction for the future: A large share of the produce market will buy and sell food on the basis of nutrient density--and I am going to be a part of making that a reality. Will you?

Today two food systems are jostling for market share: Cheap food grown as a commodity and Organic Food grown as a value-added alternative to commodity food. In the very near future nutrient dense foods will disrupt the marketplace and take prominence over both the cheap food and the organic food since neither quantifies nutrient density. Mark my words.

Jon Frank