You might see modified purple tomatoes in your grocery aisles, but should you buy them?
a photo of a purple tomato
Credit: Photo: Norfolk Plant Sciences. EatingWell design.

There was ground-breaking news in the produce world in the fall of 2022. If you missed it, the USDA approved the sale of a purple tomato that boasts more nutrients than traditional red ones. On the surface, this may seem like a win-win for health and adding color to dishes. However, bringing these purple fruits to market isn't without controversy. This is because they were created using genetic engineering, also known as genetic modification—an area of concern among many health-conscious consumers.

  1. Should you think twice before buying these new purple tomatoes?
  2. Do they pose a threat to your health?
  3. Or do the benefits outweigh any negatives?

Here's everything you need to know about purple tomatoes.

Purple Tomatoes — Why and How?

Tomatoes are a staple food in many people's daily diets. From salads and sandwiches to ketchup and spaghetti sauce, tomatoes are a key ingredient in many dishes. Moreover, tomatoes provide many health benefits due to their amazing nutrients. For instance, according to the USDA , a medium tomato offers almost 20% DV for vitamin C. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of a disease-fighting compound known as lycopene, per a 2018 article published in Food Chemistry . This leads one to assume that the new purple ones were developed just for looks, but it's quite the opposite. Researchers' goal when developing was to create a tomato that was still a good source of existing nutrients and another group of beneficial compounds known as anthocyanins.

Both lycopene and anthocyanins are considered antioxidants—compounds that can neutralize free radicals and exert anti-inflammatory effects in the body, per the National Institutes of Health . Both of these antioxidants also happen to be the pigment source for many of your most vibrantly colored produce. For example, anthocyanins give berries their deep purple and reddish-blue color, and lycopene gives a red and pink coloring to foods like tomatoes, papaya and watermelon.

Research suggests that higher intakes of antioxidant-rich foods are associated with a lower risk for diseases like heart disease, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer's. However, anthocyanins exhibit some of the most potent disease-fighting properties, per a 2020 article published in Molecules . This prompted researchers to begin their quest 15 years ago to grow a tomato rich in lycopene and anthocyanins. They slowly determined that conventional tomatoes have the genetic coding to make higher levels of anthocyanins, but this gene wasn't "turned on" to do so. After much testing, they determined that inserting two genes from snapdragons into a tomato cell's DNA could turn this gene on—and so, this new variety of purple tomatoes was born.

Potential Health Benefits of Purple Tomatoes

According to the developers and researchers at Norfolk Plant Sciences , the new purple tomato boasts the same nutrients as a conventional tomato. Still, it also contains anthocyanin levels comparable to what you'd get in a serving of blueberries. This means the purple tomato could possibly be one of the best sources of antioxidants to exist. The question is, could regularly incorporating these purple antioxidant-rich tomatoes enable diet to have a more significant influence on reducing and suppressing disease? No long-term data on humans currently exists, but when these tomatoes were incorporated into the diet of cancer-prone mice, their lifespan was significantly increased, per the 2008 study published in Nature Biotechnology .

Possible Health Risks

Creating this new tomato by inserting snapdragon genes into tomato cell DNA is a type of genetic modification—meaning it's a GMO (genetically modified organism). GMOs are a source of concern, controversy and confusion for many consumers. For example, a 2021 study published in GM Crops & Food found that consumers perceived GMO foods to have more risks than benefits, yet they had no idea if they ate foods containing GMOs. They also found that media, primarily negative, is the primary source of information that forms consumers' subjective and objective knowledge, yet it may be misleading or even inaccurate. So here are some quick GMO basics to help you determine if purple tomatoes should be in your diet.

Quick GMO Basics

Although most people only associate the letters "GMO" with food, the acronym refers to any living thing—from plants to microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to animals—whose DNA has been modified by being slightly changed or altered through genetic engineering, per the FDA . Technically, genetic modification has been occurring for thousands of years through cross-pollination and crossbreeding. Still, it's the modernized form done in a lab for a specific purpose that makes consumers weary.

For instance, in the agricultural world, the intention has been to address issues affecting farmers and sustainability. For example, genetic modification has made crops more pest-resistant, so fewer pesticides and herbicides are used. It's also enabled crops to be more resistant to weather extremes and can prevent soil erosion, per Purdue University .

What Does Research Say about GMOs?

While the process sounds somewhat Frankenstein-like, GMOs are safe to eat, per the FDA . Plants that have been genetically modified have been in the food supply for approximately 20 to 25 years, and during that time, there haven't been any health issues reported from eating them. In addition, genetically modified plants undergo much more scrutiny and regulation than any conventional plant in your food supply.

The Bottom Line

Purple tomatoes were developed to have higher anthocyanin levels and provide more health benefits. Federal agencies such as the USDA, FDA and EPA ensure that GMOs are safe for human consumption. So, will purple tomatoes be in your grocery cart? This is something you have to decide for yourself and your family.