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COVID-19 Family Arguments: Do Tomatoes and Eggs Really Need to Be Stored in the Fridge?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Study investigates burning question about tomatoes

Are you still in social isolation due to COVID-19 and running out of things to discuss with family members? Here’s a dinner table argument about whether tomatoes and eggs really need to be, or should be, stored in the fridge. And, as an added bonus—the secret behind the best vegetable soups.

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Nothing says social isolation like having an employed spouse working from home or a smart-ass college kid in the basement crossing boundaries by questioning your food health practices that has kept them fed and healthy for years. Call it a symptom of cabin fever if you will, but as it turns out, questioning the kitchen health authority may not be such a bad idea.

This thought (and others) came to me after reading a news report about a new study that asked and investigated the burning question of whether storing your tomatoes in the fridge affects their taste.

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Tomatoes: To Fridge or Not to Fridge?

According to the news report, researchers from the Division of Quality of Plant Products at the University of Göttingen analyzed the sweetness, acidity and juiciness of tomatoes using a sensory panel that consisted of experienced and trained assessors of plant products. What they found was that there were no significant differences in flavor when tomatoes are stored either at room temp or in the fridge.

"It is the variety of tomato in particular that has an important influence on the flavor. Therefore, the development of new varieties with an appealing flavor can be a step towards improving the flavor quality of tomatoes," says Larissa Kanski, lead author of the study.

"The shorter the storage period, the better it is for the flavor and related attributes. However, we were able to show that, taking into account the entire post-harvest chain, short-term storage of ripe tomatoes in the refrigerator did not affect the flavor," reports Head of Division Professor Elke Pawelzik.

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For those of us with strong, nearly-religious tomato beliefs who are beginning to feel persnickety by these findings, there may be a caveat to what the study is reporting—the study is referring to European produce, which like their eggs, might be handled differently from farm to consumer.

Eggs: To Fridge or Not to Fridge

Oddly enough, Europeans I discovered, do not refrigerate their eggs as we do in America. In fact, in Europe, eggs are typically only wiped gently after removing from the nest and then put to market. But what about the dreaded threat of salmonella poisoning that haunts America’s kitchens?

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After scouring the internet for information about how eggs are managed in both Europe and the U.S., I found that basically the differences between not-refrigerating and refrigerating eggs is mostly based on the fact that European chickens are vaccinated against Salmonella as a protective measure; whereas in the U.S. they are not. Furthermore, farming practices in Europe are reputedly held to a much higher cleanliness standard than U.S. poultry farms.

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It also turns out that the practice in the U.S. is to wash all chicken eggs to remove contaminants on the surface of the eggs; however, by doing so also removes a natural protective layer on the egg's surface referred to as its “egg bloom.” This natural cuticle or “bloom” acts as a barrier that not only prevents loss of moisture from the egg through its porous shell, but also inhibits the entry of salmonella and other harmful microorganisms. Hence, European farmers only wipe the surface of eggs gently before selling.

Now that I’ve thought about it, that’s exactly how we did it back on the farm as a kid: Eggs were collected from the nests, wiped off briefly and then left in a carton outside the fridge until used. Salmonella poisoning was not an issue on our farm. And, our henhouse was most likely much cleaner and less-packed than today’s commercial poultry facilities.

The Europeans favor vaccination, because it also lessens the threat of salmonella getting into the eggs while still inside the hen, should the hen be sick. The U.S. relies more on encouraging its citizens to use safe handling of all eggs with thorough cooking and proper storage both before and after cooking. Hence, we refrigerate our eggs—all due to the aforementioned reasons based on U.S. poultry farming practices.

Here’s an informative video from the FDA about how to handle eggs in the U.S.

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Here’s how you can pasteurize your own eggs at home

The point of all this is that farming practices differ somewhat between countries. Therefore, a European reported study finding that there is no difference in taste between tomatoes that have been stored in the fridge and those that have not, may not be applicable in the U.S.

However, what I believe does make a difference with tomatoes and taste is the secret I found behind cooking the best vegetable soups.

The Secret Behind the Best Vegetable Soups

Regarding the findings of the European study about whether storing tomatoes at room temp or in a fridge causes a difference in taste is true, it’s debatable and literally a matter of taste which can be very subjective depending on your palate, which is often based on what you were fed as a kid.

However, Americans can probably agree nearly unanimously, that in the U.S., store-bought tomatoes suck. Only by covering the store-bought tomato's bland flavor with fat from meat and added cheese is it palatable.

I first learned this during a haircut at a salon when this old gentleman—and I say “gentleman,” because he looked like an old European farmer from a foreign movie—came in and took orders from the staff for what produce they would like today. I later learned that he came by once a week with produce to sell to them that they claimed was the best they’ve ever had. It turns out that his son specialized in selling only the best produce directly to local restaurants, which came from area farms that sell already-ripened produce. The son, to give his retired father an activity, set aside some of that same produce to sell door to door at local business such as the hair salon.

My second lesson in tomatoes came from an industry scientist—who will remain anonymous to protect his or her identity—revealed that their business found that most commercially sold lots of metal-canned tomatoes test positive for a significant amount of mold contamination that was determined to have been on the tomatoes prior to processing.

The result of these lessons about tomatoes is what prompted me to learn how to pressure can home-grown tomatoes in mason jars, of which I have been doing for several years now. What I have found is that the true foundation of any vegetable soup for the absolute best taste is that it has to contain either farm fresh seasonally ripened tomatoes direct to the kitchen and made immediately, or pressure cook canned in glass jars at its peak of seasonal flavor and used later at your leisure.

All of the other components of a vegetable soup do not matter as much. You can add store-bought celery, carrots, garlic, etc. and the soup will be great as long as fresh produce ripened tomatoes either seasonal or canned, is there as the soup’s foundation of flavor.

I guarantee, there will be no argument about that when a family trapped in social isolation is fed a comparison between store-bought and seasonal tomato-based vegetable soups.

If you have any thoughts about produce and what you find makes the difference in flavor, add your recommendations in the comments section below.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Images courtesy of Pixabay and the author

References:

Should tomatoes go in the fridge?” Press Release from University of Göttingen
Department of Crop Sciences, Division of Quality of Plant Products, May 20, 2020.

Flavor-Related Quality Attributes of Ripe Tomatoes Are Not Significantly Affected Under Two Common Household Conditions” Kanski L, Naumann M and Pawelzik E; Frontiers in Plant Science (2020). Doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2020.00472

What You Need to Know About Egg Safety” U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

18 Foods That Don’t Need the Fridge” by Jaime McLeod; Farmers’ Almanac

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