Out of the many food aversions we encounter on a regular basis, few are as puzzlingly specific as that of raw tomatoes. To most, the fruit might seem innocuous at worst—sure, a pale, gritty tomato slice served with a diner burger might be cast off to the side of the plate, but tomatoes hardly seem as polarizing as foods like mayonnaise, eggs, or blue cheese. Yet for some people, they’re all but impossible to eat.
“When I try to eat a tomato, I literally gag,” said Ed Padala, a health care communications specialist in the Bay Area.
To Padala, a self-proclaimed adventurous eater, his inability to swallow something as common as a tomato is baffling—especially since he’ll happily eat cooked tomatoes in preparations like pizza sauce.
“I don’t think it’s the texture,” said Padala. “It’s something in the flavor.”
To those who love raw tomatoes, the meaty, outrageously juicy heirlooms and Early Girls of high summer are a source of celebration, particularly in the form of tomato and mayo sandwiches, which have also drawn haters and defenders in seemingly equal numbers. Yet it may be that exact meatiness that puts people off of them entirely.
“I’d say that part of the issue is that tomatoes have a lot of glutamic acid, which is the main chemical trigger for umami taste,” Nicola Twilley, writer and co-host of the Gastropod podcast, told me over email.
In a 2017 Gastropod episode on the science of taste, researcher Paul Breslin explained to Twilley and her co-host, Cynthia Graber, that “savory taste is fundamentally associated with protein-rich foods that are decomposing somehow,” Twilley said. Because raw tomatoes aren’t fermented, dried, or cooked—the three processes that typically draw out that specific flavor profile—the fact that they taste like that might weird certain people out, even if they don’t understand why.
“There’s also the problem that most supermarket tomatoes are not actually delicious at all, because they’ve been bred to withstand the rigors of refrigeration,” Twilley explained.
This is why those pale, lackluster diner tomatoes bear so little resemblance to the peak summer tomatoes grown in backyard gardens. “They’ve literally had the genes for a lot of the aromatic volatiles that make ripe tomatoes so delicious bred out of them” says Twilley—an accidental side effect of optimizing tomatoes for shipping and sale.
Aside from their high level of glutamic acid, tomatoes generally have a surprisingly complex chemical profile. As molecular biologist Harold Klee explained in a 2017 article, that has made the task of reintroducing flavor to the bland supermarket tomato—something Klee and other researchers have spent years trying to achieve—a formidable challenge. The complexity also means it’s difficult to identify the exact compounds that make tomatoes so gag-worthy to certain people.
When asked if the aforementioned fleshiness of tomatoes is what makes them hard to handle, Padala said it probably wasn’t, though he couldn’t think of what else it might be—aside from, perhaps, the acidity. However, for Nataly Gruender, another lifelong hater of raw tomatoes, the offending qualities are easier to pinpoint.
“I think a raw tomato tastes like watered-down battery acid,” Gruender explained via email.
To Gruender, nearly everything about a raw tomato is off-putting: apart from the sour, battery-acid-esque flavor, the texture is something she simply cannot get past.
“Too many seeds, too much juice, too loose and stringy when cut apart,” she said.
While it may be tough to endear raw tomatoes to people like Padala or Gruender, whose aversions skew to the extreme, there may be hope for others.
Dan Pashman, host of the long-running food podcast The Sporkful, is a former raw tomato hater himself. (“It was mostly the squishy, mushy texture of the pulp inside,” Pashman told The Takeout via email.) His suggestion for those who want to push past their distaste is to gradually introduce raw tomatoes into their diet.
“I would recommend some classic aversion therapy,” said Pashman. “Eat as much as you can deal with on a regular basis and try to learn to love them over time. It’ll be worth it!”