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The Secret Behind Tastier Tangerines

GAINESVILLE, Fla.—Researchers working to create new tangerine varieties by pinpointing the compounds that make them taste and smell the way they do have discovered tangerine flavor is highly complex and not the product of just one compound, according to a new study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

The findings are especially important to citrus breeders because knowing the compounds responsible for flavor and aroma means being able to plant and test more trees that are more likely to produce superior fruit.

Over the past 10 years, Florida fresh citrus growers have lost valuable ground to producers in California and Spain who’ve enjoyed success with seedless Clementine varieties, such as the “California Cutie." Grown in Florida, the same varieties have more seeds than consumers like. From 2005 to 2009, the value of Florida’s tangerine crop dropped from $52 million to $43 million, while tangerine consumption nationwide was on the rise.

Researchers at the University of Florida have been documenting the precise volatile compounds that account for specific flavors and aromas in tangerine. Much has been studied about such volatiles in orange, but only recently have researchers turned their attention to tangerine.

Researchers used a gas-chromatography-olfactometer, which analyzes and separates various components of tangerine aroma, to log their sniff-test reactions to each. In five tangerine hybrids, the team found 49 aroma compounds. Much like wine connoisseurs, their descriptions ranged from “sulfury" to “woody/spicy" and even “metallic/rubber."

By singling out each of the volatiles that humans can sense, the team gets an assessment of what’s desirable in a tangerine and what isn’t. Surveys from around the country have shown that citrus consumers above all else want fruit that tastes good—even more so than seedless or easy-to-peel varieties.

“I want to understand the genetics that lay underneath all of this stuff, so we can develop molecular markers, and then we can select seedlings at a very young age that we think should have good flavor attributes," said Fred Gmitter, a UF citrus breeder based at the university’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.

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