Researcher Aims to Create 'Super' Tomatoes

July 09, 2009 - News Release

Tomato products such as ketchup and sauce may soon be even healthier for you. A University of Guelph researcher is working to increase the amount of lycopene in new tomato varieties.

Enhanced levels of this powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes will further elevate the health virtues of this nutritious food, said Steven Loewen, who is developing the new tomato plants at U of G’s Ridgetown Campus.

His goal is to create the ultimate “healthy” tomato for processing. “Dietary lycopene availability is increased by processing tomatoes into paste or sauce,” he said, “so processed is actually more nutritious than fresh.”

The new varieties will benefit farmers’ bottom line and exceed consumers’ nutritional expectations for tomato products, he said. “Boosting the nutritional value is the focus now for the tomato processing industry, and consumers will be reaping the benefits.”

Loewen has been working with the tomato’s crimson and high-pigment genes, which are capable of increasing a tomato’s lycopene levels. Studies have shown the genes could give up to a 200-per-cent boost in lycopene, as well as the nutrient beta-carotene, a source of vitamin A.

But there are challenges, he said. The high-pigment traits diminish seed germination, plant development and yield. So Loewen is aiming for the “super lycopene” plant varieties to have superior traits all around that will produce the best functional properties without sacrificing growth and overall crop yield, he said.

Along with significantly boosting lycopene levels, he’s finding ways to develop earlier maturity and increase rot resistance, which will mean a longer harvesting season and improved yields.

He’s also breeding in durability, so the tomatoes will be able to weather the many processing stages: harvesting, peeling, dicing and canning.

“This research is going to help sustain the processed-tomato industry, by helping farmers produce a highly nutritious product for the consumer’s benefit,” Loewen said.

Others involved in this research are Richard Wright and Jennifer Newport from Ridgetown and Rong Cao of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Funding is provided by the Ontario Tomato Research Institute, in association with the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers and the Ontario Food Processors Association, as well as the sustainable production system section of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and the U of G/OMAFRA partnership.

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