Author: Dr Sophie Parks & Dr Suzie Newman
How do Australians currently perceive tomatoes in the market place? This is an important question for the greenhouse industry at this point in time because hydroponic tomato products now have a strong presence in the market place. Understanding tomatoes is one way of identifying areas for industry improvement. To attempt to quantify consumer attitudes towards available tomato types, researchers from NSW DPI recently carried out a consumer survey in Sydney. Significant findings from this work are reported here.
About the survey
The survey was carried out over four days in June this year. Four supermarkets and four fruit and vegetable stores were randomly selected from the North Shore of Sydney. Twenty-five shoppers were interviewed in each store, near the tomato section, providing 200 respondents in total. Twenty questions were asked and the questionnaire took between 3 and 5 minutes to complete. The questions asked were designed to identify purchasing behaviour, use and storage of tomatoes, and the level of satisfaction with tomato quality. For this survey, five types of tomatoes found in the market place were defined: standard/gourmet, roma, truss/vine ripened, hydroponic and cherry/grape.
Fruit and vegetable stores were slightly favoured over supermarkets for tomato purchases. Although 50% were interviewed in a supermarket, only 32% bought tomatoes exclusively from the supermarket. Most of those interviewed in a fruit and vegetable store (46%) exclusively bought tomatoes there. The remaining 16% shopped at both supermarkets and fruit and vegetable stores, and 6% shopped elsewhere such as growers markets or at an organic store. Most people shopped weekly (66%) buying either 3-5 tomatoes (37%) or 1 kg (40%). Over 10% of people bought 1-2 punnets of cherry or grape tomatoes instead of, or in addition to, other tomatoes. Consumers were asked about the two types of tomatoes that they most frequently bought. Standard tomatoes were the most purchased (67%) and hydroponic tomatoes the least purchased (18%) (Figure 1). Over 35% of shoppers bought truss and cherry types, and over 40% bought roma tomatoes.
Figure 1. The proportion of consumers that bought each tomato type. This was based on the two tomato types that consumers usually purchased. First type – light green; second type – dark green.
The importance of flavour and quality in tomatoes
In terms of quality characteristics, flavour is the king tomato quality. Almost 30% of respondents were concerned about flavour, more than any other quality, when they had been disappointed with a tomato purchase (Figure 2). Firmness was the next quality of concern (16%), followed by ripeness (12%). Flavour was a key reason for buying tomatoes but this differed among tomato types. For example, over 80% of those that bought truss tomatoes did so for reasons of flavour, whereas only 20% of those that bought field tomatoes bought them for flavour (Figure 3). When it came to the question of the most flavoursome tomato, the largest group of consumers identified truss as having the most flavour (Figure 4).
Figure 2. Consumer reasons for being dissatisfied with a tomato purchase.
Figure 3. The reasons for buying a particular tomato type.
Figure 4. The tomato type considered as having the most flavour.
A significant proportion of consumers are not very excited about tomato flavour in the market place. When asked to rate tomato flavour, generally, 57% felt that tomato flavour was poor, not as good as it used to be, or average, and 43% felt that tomato flavour was good to very good. Consumers were asked to score the different tomato types for a number of quality characteristics. These included value for money, colour and appearance, firmness, sweetness, flavour, keeping and overall satisfaction. Combining these scores did not reveal significant differences among tomato types. However, generally speaking, cherry/grape tomatoes scored highest followed by truss, roma, hydroponic and lastly field tomatoes with the lowest quality score. Some consumers commented on how they usually pick out the best tomatoes from a poor batch of field tomatoes. This reflects the lower quality score for this tomato type.
The importance of use and versatility
People buy tomatoes for different uses. At the time of the survey (winter) almost 80% of respondents used tomatoes in salads. Over 35% also used tomatoes in sandwiches and for cooking. Versatility emerged as an important factor in buying tomatoes. It was the most important reason for buying cherry/grape tomatoes and the least important reason for buying any other tomato type (Figure 3). Consumers commented that cherry/grape tomatoes are very easy to use. Cherry/grape tomatoes are ideal as a snack, good for lunch boxes, well liked by kids, easy in salads, sandwiches and on crackers. Some mentioned that waste was reduced compared to other tomato types. Evidently, cherry/grape tomatoes have very successfully captured a niche in the tomato market.
The importance of price
Standard tomatoes were not considered the most flavoursome, or of a particularly high quality, but they were the most popular purchase. One would assume from this result that consumers are price sensitive when buying tomatoes. When asked why they bought field tomatoes, people were more likely to state price than flavour as a reason for buying this tomato type (Figure 3). However, price was not the main reason for buying any of the other tomato types. For truss, roma, and hydroponic tomatoes, flavour was the main factor prompting the purchase of these types. Versatility was the main factor prompting cherry/grape tomatoes, as previously mentioned. Also, price was not an important reason for being dissatisfied with a tomato purchase. In this case, only 2.5% of respondents reported price as being the significant issue.
Consumer comments were revealing about tomato price. Some consumers stated that they were not prepared to pay for more expensive types after having been disappointed with several purchases. Others stated that price was not an issue when entertaining, or when fresh tomato flavour was an important part of the meal, but bought cheaper tomatoes at other times.
Is there a problem with the ‘hydroponic’ tomato?
It is of concern that in this survey hydroponic tomatoes were the least purchased tomato type and were only considered the most flavoursome tomato type by 13% of consumers. However, of those that bought hydroponic tomatoes, 65% buy them for their flavour. Additionally, hydroponic tomato consumers are more likely than other consumers to think of tomato flavour in the market place as generally good.
It would appear that quality is not the reason for hydroponic tomatoes being one of the least popular tomato types in this survey. Perhaps the answer lies in marketing of the hydroponic tomato. In any case, this issue provides an opportunity for the hydroponic tomato industry to explore new ways of gaining a larger piece of the tomato market pie.
Storing tomatoes at home
Knowing how consumers store tomatoes at home can indicate whether or not tomatoes are getting the conditions that encourage full ripeness and flavour. From this survey it appears that there is room to educate consumers about how to best store tomatoes at home.
The majority of consumers store tomatoes in the fridge for 4-7 days. Some people were willing to admit that they kept tomatoes for up to 3 weeks! Ideally, tomatoes should be ripened at room temperature to obtain the best flavour. Once fully ripened they can be placed in the fridge if necessary. Only 30% of people in this survey stored tomatoes at room temperature (Figure 5). Given the importance placed by these consumers on flavour, providing information on correct storage conditions may reduce the dissatisfaction many have with tomato purchases.
Figure 5. Storage of tomatoes at home: Fridge – in the fridge; Open – at room temperature; F+O – at room temperature then in the fridge.
About the consumers
In any survey it is important to know a bit about the people participating so that effects, such as gender preferences, can be identified. In this survey all the respondents were interviewed on the North Shore of Sydney. The North Shore was chosen with the assumption that people in this higher socio/economic area would be more prepared to pay for expensive tomato types. This was important as one of the aims of the survey was to obtain information from consumers about a range of tomato types. If the survey Reels rotate once to release short had been carried out in another region, or at Disposable reels with 25metre twine another time of day or year, we may have obtained a different picture of consumer attitudes towards tomatoes.
Nylon hanger for strength and durability obtained a different picture of consumer Long lengths quickly and easily unwound attitudes towards tomatoes. Hangers will not spin off the crop wire Proven over 5 years in NZ and Australia Two hundred consumers were interviewed in total. There were more females (73%) than males (27%). Over a third had children living at home (38%). Just under a third of people were born overseas (30%). Income was approximately evenly split among four income levels: $0-25 000, $25 000-65 000, $65 000-100 000, >$100 000. Almost half of people were over 50 years of age, 35% were 36-50, 16% were 25-35, and 1% of the respondents were under 25 years of age.
With few exceptions, gender, age, income and place of birth did not influence the way consumers answered the questionnaire. The exception was that 25-35-year-olds were less likely to rate tomato flavour as poor and more likely to rate tomato flavour as good compared with other age groups. This could be interpreted in two ways. Younger taste buds are known to function better than older taste buds; hence this age group has not suffered any loss of tasting capability. Alternatively, tomatoes really good as they used to, with this age group being too young to have ever tried a tasty tomato!
There is a lot to be gained by looking at tomatoes from the consumer perspective. Most consumers buy more than one type of tomato and they are passionate about flavour. Flavour is the main impetus for buying tomatoes, and flavour, firmness and ripeness are perceived to be the biggest problems with tomatoes. Given the emphasis placed on these qualities, consumers would probably benefit with more information on appropriate storage and ripening conditions for tomatoes. As for tomatoes sold as are not as popular as other types and are not readily perceived to be flavoursome, except by those that buy them. The industry needs to address these issues.
About the authors
Dr Sophie Parks is a plant physiologist focused on greenhouse and hydroponic production. Dr Suzie Newman is a postharvest physiologist focused on postharvest and market access issues. They are both based at NSW Department of Primary Industries at Gosford, NSW.
What is tomato flavour?
The organoleptic (taste or flavour) properties of tomato fruits are determined largely by the amounts of solids, particularly sugars and organic acids, and the volatile compound composition (Stevens, 1972). Some 95% of a typical ripe tomato fruit is water, so the tomato quality is therefore determined by a very small amount of solid matter. About 8% of this dry matter is minerals, the rest consisting of various carbon compounds, half of which are sugars as glucose and fructose, and an eighth organic acids. These are the factors which contribute to the typical sweet/sour taste of a tomato.
Sugars and acids not only contribute to the sweetness and sourness of tomatoes, but are also major factors influencing flavour intensity (Stevens et al., 1979). Hobson and Bedford (1989) stated that consumers preferred fruit with a balanced high sugar content, the taste is sweet but, to most people, insipid. With high quality acidity and low sugar content, the taste is rather sharp and thin. When both acidity and sugar content are low, the taste is watery and unattractive (Winsor, 1966). Tomato flavour changes dramatically during the process of ripening. The sugar content of both the seed and pulp increases rapidly during the first appearance of yellow and orange colouration, and then to a lesser extent up to the fully ripe condition (Winsor, 1966). The acidity of juices is relatively high at the mature green stage, but decreases markedly throughout the ripening process from the green or green-yellow stages onwards. The flavour of the fruit is thus best at about the orange-red stage, when sugar content is high and before overall acidity becomes too low.
The composition of cherry tomatoes and its relation to consumer acceptability.
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Components contributing to quality variation among tomato lines
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Potential for increasing tomato flavour via increased sugar and acid content. 1979.
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