A slight change in the process used to prepare tomatoes for sale could make them tastier. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

If you've ever compared a farm-fresh heirloom tomato to the average fruit from a grocery store, you know the latter is a pale substitution. But by slightly tweaking the way tomatoes are prepared for sale, scientists say, they can make them just a bit yummier. The key is giving tomatoes a nice hot soak before they head to the store.

Tomatoes in the grocery store aren't generally freshly picked. They've been shipped from another location, spending days or weeks in storage to make it to store shelves. And that means that they weren't actually red and ripe when they were picked -- if they had been, they'd be a rotten mess by the time they arrived.

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So tomatoes are picked green and ripened at the opportune moment using a gas called ethylene. It's totally natural -- it's the gas that tomatoes, apples, bananas, and other fruits release when they ripen, and its presence signals other fruits nearby to get going -- but what comes after is no good for your taste buds: Once the fruits have been perfectly ripened, they're stored in the cold to keep them from going bad.

It turns out that the lower temperatures really degrade fruit flavor. At the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society this week, researchers presented a simple solution: Just give the fruit a nice, hot bath beforehand.

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In the experiment, which was led by researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, and the University of Florida, Florida-grown tomatoes were dipped in hot water (about 125 degrees Fahrenheit) for five minutes before getting the same chilly treatment as the other tomatoes.

The hot bath seemed to mitigate some of the tasteless effects of the chilling. Important flavor compounds -- the chemicals that give tomatoes their taste -- were more abundant in the experimental tomatoes, even after they'd been chilled and stored.

The researchers are working on figuring out whether other techniques -- one that caught the tomatoes earlier in the production process, or allowed them to ripen on the vine for a bit longer without risking decay en route to their final destination -- might make tomatoes taste even better.

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