I lived in Italy for nearly 20 years, and it's difficult to imagine Italians tolerating anyone tampering with their precious tomato, the main ingredient in their all-important "gravy". But they seem to be OK with the newfangled "Realtomato" showing up in their caprese salads and Margherita pizzas.
That's because studies show the hybrid tomato prevents cancer, a disease that's prevalent and on the rise in Italy.
In a garden lab in Pozzuoli, near Naples, Italian researchers developed the Realtomato by crossing San Marzano tomatoes with purple ones. Grown in the area's rich, volcanic soil, the combination creates a tomato extremely high in cancer-fighting antioxidants, especially after being cooked.
Barbara Nicolaus, director of the National Research Council Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry (CNR-ICB) led a team of researchers and students who bred various tomatoes, then tested for the one with the highest antioxidant qualities. The purple/San Marzano hybrid was the winner.
Garden-variety tomatoes are already high in the antioxidant lycopene, and purple tomatoes on their own get their plummy colour from anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that protect against cancer, cardiovascular disease, and possibly inflammatory diseases and diabetes. Combine that with the San Marzano, and you get a delicious antioxidant tomato bomb.
In studies, the hybrid tomato's antioxidants protected human cells from cancer.
"Cancer cells were unable to grow when challenged with the extract of these tomatoes," Dr Antonio Giordano told me. He's the director of Philadelphia's Sbarro Institute and participated in the study.
It was risky, though, to try foisting a modified San Marzano on Italians. Legend says the variety of plum tomato arrived in Italy in the 1520s with Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés. It also holds EU Protected Designation of Origin status. They're known for making the best sauces and are considered the only basis for a true Neapolitan pizza.
But so far, Italians haven't rejected the Realtomato. Companies Pomo d'oro and De Clemente are encouraged enough to have Realtomato-based products in the works, including tomato pulp, ready-made pasta sauce as well an anti-ageing face cream — which hopefully will not look as gross as it sounds.
Realtomatoes could be heading for the States soon as well. Researchers have planted vines in Florida (as well as other European locales) to see if they'll retain their antioxidant effects when not grown under the Italian sun. Giordano expects to publish the results sometime in 2012.
The other saving grace for the Realtomato in the eyes of real Italians is that it's not genetically modified, just intensely bred.
"The beauty is that since it's naturally made and not a GMO, both (tomatoes) keep their genetic background," Dr. Giordano says.
He adds that in addition to being good for you, Realtomatoes are delicious. He likes them in a simple dish of spaghetti al pomodoro.