Can science make tomatoes even better for you?

Can science make tomatoes even better for you?
Backed by a national ‘New Innovator’ award, a CFAES scientist is trying to find out.
“It’s important that health-promoting foods be accessible and prevalent in the American diet.”Jessica Cooperstone

Tomatoes are generally good for you. Jessica Cooperstone, PhD, a scientist and assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), wants to learn exactly why—then make them even better.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) last summer named Cooperstone a recipient of a $300,000 New Innovator award, which she’ll use to develop even healthier tomatoes for people to grow and eat. She’ll do that by combining tools from her unique set of expertise: plant breeding and genetics, analytical chemistry, bioinformatics, and nutrition.

The award, for Cooperstone’s project titled “Improving the Nutritional Quality of Tomatoes,” was one of only eight given nationally, and the only one in Ohio.

An FFAR press release said the New Innovator awards provide early-career scientists with funding to conduct “audacious” food and agriculture research. Matching funds are provided, too, by the awardees’ home institutions. 

“Investing in these scientists in the early years of their careers allows them to pursue innovative and transformational ideas uninhibited by the pressure of identifying their next grant,” the foundation’s press release said.

CFAES scientist Jessica Cooperstone, left, works with Maria Sholola, a member of her research group, in the group’s lab in Columbus. Sholola is a graduate student in the CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology.

FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey, in the same press release, called the awardees “emerging superstars” in food and agricultural research, pioneers who are developing “cutting-edge strategies to revolutionize food production, processing, and distribution.”

“Preparing for the next frontier of agricultural innovation starts with investing in today’s scientific workforce,” Rockey said.

Cooperstone holds appointments in two CFAES departments, the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science and the Department of Food Science and Technology. She’s a PhD alumna of the latter.

Here, she answers some questions about her new project.

Q: What’s the idea behind the research? What’s the big issue involved? 

A: The American population is growing at the same time that the incidence of chronic disease is on the rise. We know that diet plays a large role in risk for development of these chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and cancer. In general, we understand that diets rich in fruits and vegetables are protective against the development of a variety of chronic diseases, and we also know that 87% of Americans eat fewer vegetables than recommended by the federal dietary guidelines

Q: So why look at tomatoes specifically?

A: Tomatoes are the second most commonly consumed vegetable in the United States—after potato, which is really barely nutritionally a vegetable; it’s more similar in that sense to a grain—and account for about 22% of total vegetable intake. Tomatoes are important economically to the state of Ohio. 

Additionally, there’s a lot of really convincing epidemiology, preclinical—studies in cells and animals—and clinical studies that demonstrate that tomatoes can positively affect human health.

Cooperstone poses in her lab with Jordan Hartman, also a member of her research group. Hartman is a graduate student in the CFAES Department of Horticulture and Crop Science.

When my team thinks about improving the nutritional quality of crops, we want to focus on those that are highly consumed, as this increases our capacity for impact. Since tomatoes are so widely consumed, their improvement is more likely to be impactful broadly. It’s important that health-promoting foods be accessible and prevalent in the American diet. 

Q: What are you hoping to learn? What do we not know yet?

A: We have an abundance of data that shows that tomatoes play a positive role in the diet, but we still lack a fundamental understanding as to why. What is it about the tomato that is imparting the benefits we see in people who eat a lot of them?  

The majority of nutrition research about tomatoes and human health has focused on lycopene—the red pigment in tomato—as the principal bioactive compound. However, most studies aren’t designed in such a way to tease out the effects of a particular component of the tomato. 

In reality, tomatoes contain thousands of different phytochemicals, and some previous work from my team, and by others, suggests that lycopene may not be the only bioactive. Some work we have done has led us to focus on other, less-studied compounds from tomato, including a class of compound unique to tomato called steroidal alkaloids. My team has discovered that these tomato phytochemicals can be absorbed and accumulate in the body, and, also based on literature reports, it is plausible that they may be conferring benefits.

“We are thrilled to support emerging superstars in food and agriculture research.”Sally Rockey, FFAR

Q: How will you find that out?

A: To understand what these tomato alkaloids do, we need to be able to create tomato material that allows us to test specific nutritional hypotheses. We can use plant breeding, genomic, and metabolomic approaches to identify, breed, and select for tomatoes that have alkaloid profiles of interest to us, allowing us to explicitly test what effect individual compounds have on human health outcomes, in a systematic and physiologically relevant way. This tomato germplasm development is what we’re working on for this project.

Q: Where will this lead? Down the road, what might somebody grow in their garden, grow on their farm, or buy in the grocery store, and be healthier from eating it? 

A: Our long-term goal is to develop new varieties of tomatoes that are rigorously tested and could justify having health claims. It’s really important to me that if we’re making a claim about one of our foods, that it’s really legitimate. But, rigorous testing takes time.

Q: One last question. Everyone’s dealing with the pandemic. How has your research been affected by it?

A: The pandemic has caused a big shift for us. We’ve been back in the lab since May 2020, working with masks and protective gear, and with decreased numbers. Whatever work we can do at home, we do. Our group had four graduate students complete their degrees in summer 2020, and this was possible because of lots of hard work, and careful planning. I’m really so fortunate to have an absolutely wonderful lab group.    

The way lab work has shifted, now we do as much planning as we possibly can before getting into the lab, and are more strategic about our experiments. This increased planning has been super beneficial to us, as we’re able to more effectively use our limited lab time, and is something we’ll continue in the post-COVID era. 

I’m looking forward to when we can have more casual in-person interactions, lunches, celebrations, but for now, we’re focused on keeping ourselves physically safe and mentally healthy.

Cooperstone was hired as a part of Ohio State’s Foods for Health Discovery Theme. She’s a faculty affiliate of the program. Learn more about her research interests by visiting the website for her lab.

Story by Kurt Knebusch, photos by Ken Chamberlain, both of CFAES Advancement. Tomato image from Getty Images.