The second Sunday in May is set aside for celebrating moms, grandmoms, and others who have lovingly nurtured us. But it also marks the unofficial start of outdoor planting season for gardeners who’ve lovingly tended tomato plants indoors.
The soil and night air are, at last, safely past danger from cooler temperatures harmful to the tender young plants, bringing ever closer the long-anticipated delicious bite of fresh, ripe tomato. But for those afflicted with acid-sensitive digestive distress, propagating the iconic Eastern Shore summer treat threatens to bring more pain than gain.
Having joined the latter group over the past few years, I can honestly say I feel your suffering.
Denying one’s tastebuds the pleasure of savoring this garden gem goes beyond disappointing and approaches tragic, as any tomato lover will freely attest.
But added to this is also the trauma of no longer being able to participate in the collective joys and sorrows of tomato growing season, a seemingly predestined course of nature for so many.
Though initially devastating, there are ways to cope and compensate.
For instance, last summer, I sought out fruits and veggies never before tried — watermelon and honeydew, chocolate mint and pineapple sage, yellow and sweet potato, habanero and ghost pepper (for a neighbor who was helping with our communal backyard garden).
Being part of a group provided not only purpose but permission to personally experience growing heirloom tomato varieties like Cherokee Purple, which I’d longed to do since watching Jess on Roots and Refuge Homestead’s YouTube Channel.
Inspired once again to peruse tomato plants, I noticed Lemon Boy and German Queen varieties described as “low acid.”
I had to read it twice to believe it! It was already well into hot and muggy July, and I had no business even eyeing these sad, wilted specimens.
But rational thought had no chance against the dormant hopes of a die-hard tomato lover once awakened. I tenderly carried them home and planted them right away, watering, waiting and watching.
The plants produced many leaves, but no fruit until the cooler fall weather arrived, bringing bunches of small green mini tomatoes though too late to fully grow and ripen.
Still, a seed grew within me to learn what I could about the possibility of growing tomatoes that wouldn’t bite me back.
Once the holidays were past and the growing season approached, I began exploring the online seed supply landscape. At Maryland-based Reimer Seeds (, I appeared to hit the jackpot with an entire page devoted to “Low Acidity Tomato” featuring 48 varieties in a cornucopia of colors, shapes, and sizes, including the familiar San Marzano plum plus a Great White Beefsteak, Pineapple Pig, Sunny Goliath, Banana Legs, and Basinga!
On the Bonnie Plants website, I discovered an overview of the fundamentals behind tomato flavor (
“Different pigments in tomatoes tend to produce different balances of sugars and acids.
“For example, orange or yellow tomatoes often taste milder and less acidic than red tomatoes. Some black tomatoes — created from the mixture of green and red pigments — have a reputation of having complex flavor (which some people love and others don’t).
“It’s not necessarily that a yellow tomato is less acidic than a red or black tomato, but that the combination of sugar and acid levels, as well as other compounds, makes for a milder taste. Try some of each color and test for yourself.”
Among the lower acid/sweeter-tasting varieties mentioned are Lemon Boy, Bush Goliath, Mr. Stripley, and Black Prince, the latter two being heirlooms.
To follow up, I asked the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center’s Certified Professional Horticulturalists, who concurred:
“There are relatively small pH differences between fruits of different tomato cultivars. Some yellow and orange tomato cultivars are higher in sugars but are not low in acid. They just have a milder, sweeter flavor.
“Levels of acidity don’t necessarily correlate with acidity flavor. Many factors affect both the acid content and acid flavor of tomato- fertilization, soil moisture, sunshine/cloudiness during fruit maturity, stage of ripeness when harvested and storage conditions, etc.”
I then reached out to the Craig LeHoullier, tomato advisor to Seed Savers Exchange and author of award-winning “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time.”
A retired professional chemist, LeHoullier has been an on an enthusiastic tomato growing adventure for 40 years. On his website (, he explains his passion for not only growing but sharing what he learns:
“Through the years, I’ve been known as ‘NC Tomatoman’ (now with Instagram account @NCTomatoman). Some know me as the fellow who named Cherokee Purple in 1990. To others, I am the author of the books Epic Tomatoes or Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales, the co-host of Tomatopalooza, a co-leader of the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, or just the odd person with a garden where the driveway used to be.”
Throughout his 40 years of adventurous cultivating, LeHoullier believes he’s tasted around 4,000 varieties.
He also hears from other growers, some of whom have related being able to eat pink tomatoes, but not red ones.
While researching Epic Tomatoes, a source cited a 1976 USDA study published in a paperback Ortho book “All About Tomatoes” in a chapter titled ‘Let’s Set the Record Straight.’
He summarized the findings:
“The USDA carried out pH tests (which determines acidity) on over 350 types of tomatoes of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and found acidity was in an extremely narrow range — meaning all tomatoes are equally acidic. The sensation of acidity from variety to variety is more a function of sugar levels; those tomatoes with high sugar levels mask the acidity and make them taste sweet and mild. Conversely, lower sugar levels allow the acidity to show through.”
Within the study, LeHoullier recalled at least one instance of white, orange, pink, and red varieties registering the same 4.2 PH level.
“One of the wonderful things about gardening is the proliferation of urban legends, an outgrowth of being a hobby handed down over generations, involving the passing on of different ideas,” he noted.