Not only did Israeli scientists create the modern cherry tomatoes that are so popular worldwide, but now researchers at foodtech startup Supree have produced a strain of the fruit that even dries itself on the vine as it grows in the sun.
“In tomatoes, there is a trait of tiny cracks called microcracking,” Supree VP Strategy and Growth Yana Voldman tells NoCamels.
“It’s a known trait and we didn’t invent it, but we knew that in classical breeding, it is taken out of the varieties,” she explains.
“For fresh produce, you want to keep all the moisture and juice and you want to keep the fraud plump and juicy inside firm. So you take this trait out during the breeding process [and] we did exactly the opposite.”
The Supree tomato strain is uniquely bred so that the tiny cracks expand and allow the moisture within the fruit to evaporate naturally during the growing process. This maintains the taste and color that makes the cherry tomato so appealing, and also preserves the nutritional benefits, such as antioxidants and vitamins, that turns it into a superfood.
By the time the tomatoes have ripened, they have lost around 80 percent of their weight through evaporation. They are harvested before the entire water content of the fruit has evaporated, and while the tomatoes may go through a further limited drying process, this does not include additives or other non-natural preservatives.
“They don’t need additional processing; there’s no use of additives, and that also reduces the waste,” says Voldman.
Supree is a subsidiary of NRGene Technologies, a Ness Ziona-based company that previously mapped the genome (genetic makeup) of the sweet potato, bread and even pasta. The startup specializes in self-drying fruit and vegetables, utilizing NTGene’s advanced technology and artificial intelligence developments.
At present the tomatoes are picked by hand, although Supree says it intends to introduce mechanical harvesting, which the company believes will lower prices. Indeed, Israeli startup MetoMotion, based in the northern city of Yokneam Illit, has already created a robot that can pick tomatoes automatically.
Tomatoes are extremely popular within Israel, with Israelis consuming on average 20 kilos of the fruit apiece each year.
While local legend has it that the cherry tomato was wholly invented in Israel, in reality it was several species of the wild plant that were developed into their current globally popular forms by Israeli scientists in the 1970s. Among those species, which were bred for sweetness and a more robust harvest, is the Tomaccio – a sweet cherry tomato specifically grown for the sun-dried market.
Once they are picked, the tomatoes are frozen in order to be shipped and stored without spoiling. Again, Voldman says, the emphasis is on natural processes.
“Instead of using preservatives or other types of chemicals, we just freeze the product and because of the low moisture content of the tomato, it freezes perfectly and defrosts in a perfect state,” she explains.
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This means that tomatoes can be stored for up to one year.
Primarily the company says it will focus on selling the fruit directly within the food industry in Israel, Europe and the Middle East, rather than to individual consumers. Direct sale to consumers, Voldman says, will be available in the next couple of years.
Supree says the product is ideal for a range of dishes, including baked goods, salads and even desserts, and at least one culinary industry expert agrees.
“Occasionally, I come across something truly new and such are the cherry tomatoes that self-dry on the vine,” said veteran Israeli chef Ran Shmueli, who runs the high-end Claro restaurant in Tel Aviv, which specializes in Mediterranean dishes.
“Their taste, uniqueness, and innovation elevate and enrich our dishes and menus,” Shmueli said.
Supree believes that its self-sun drying tomatoes will be ready for market by mid-2024, with an estimated market potential of $1.5 billion by 2030, carved out of the existing $16 billion annual market for dried tomatoes.
The company also envisions a successful entry into the dried fruit market, worth $10.2 billion each year; the frozen fruit market, which runs to an annual $4.4 billion; and the superfood market, worth $60 billion yearly.
With that in mind, it has partnered with Haifa-based company Tzabar Tech, drawing on its agritech experience in order to maximize the cultivation and post-harvest processes.
“The collaboration between Tzabar Tech and Supree presents an excellent opportunity to integrate innovative growth technologies, while allowing farmers to improve work processes and achieve more profitable yields,” said Tzabar Tech CEO Gilad Mintz.
And with cherry tomatoes conquered and cured, Supree is now looking to expand its line to other self-drying crops, primarily another Israeli staple, the bell pepper.
“We can do similar things with many fruits and vegetables,” Voldman says.
“They are not always cracked, but there are lots of traits that we can work with to create [the self-drying] in different fruits and vegetables.”