Canned Tomato Challenge: San Marzano vs. USA
By Ashlea Hartz, N.C.
In the shadows of the great Mt. Vesuvius lies a small town of San Marzano sul Sarno, near Naples, yes that’s in Italy not Florida. It was here, one story goes, that a tomato seed gifted to the people of Naples from the royalty of Peru was first planted in the rich soil infused with organic ash, and the legend of the San Marzano tomato was born.
If you have been to your grocery store lately you might wonder what is so special about a can of San Marzano tomatoes and is it worth it’s hefty price tag? Well as a certified Nutritionist, home cook, and bargain shopper I wanted to know if this tomato is worth the hype or was the lovely American version next to it just as delicious. So I started digging and here is what I found out.
San Marzano tomatoes have a rich history and reputation as being one of the best tomatoes in the world. They are loved by chefs and foodies alike and the tomato of choice for an authentic Naples style pizza. These tomatoes are similar to the roma, but thinner and longer in shape. The flesh tends to be thicker and the taste is said to be sweeter and less acidic. Canned San Marzanos sold commercial must be grown in the valley of Sarno in Italy in compliance with Italian law, then they can be classified as Pomodoro S. Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino and have the European Union “DOP” emblem on the label. Like a great wine, Italians take these tomatoes very seriously.
Nowadays with globalization and all, the San Marzano seeds have become available across the globe which means you can find a San Marzano tomato that was grown just about anywhere in the world. Here in America, San Marzano tomatoes are actually the genetic grandfather for another popular variety, the roma tomato. The roma tomato a delicious cross between different breeds including a San Marzano and a modern San Marzano hybrid. So does the American tomatoes we have in the store today stack up to their legendary ancestors? That was my question.
The San Marzano has become so popular, that keeping the tradition alive and authenticity in tack has been a challenge for the Italians. Over the past decade, there has been more articles and controversy due to the fact that some of the San Marzanos passed off as DOP authentic are actually imposters. So even if you are reaching for the can with the stamp, consumers are left to wonder if you are really getting the quality they are paying for? If you are looking for a great canned tomato for a home cook, it might be wise to bypass the labels and let your own taste buds do the talking.
I stopped by my local grocery store, New Leaf Community Markets in Santa Cruz, CA to see if I could conduct my own little taste test. The mission was to see if you could notice a difference between the official Italian San Marzanos and their American cousins, and which one was the best for an average home cook. I grabbed a can of the official “DOP” San Marzanos and next to them on the shelf was a similar product grow right here in America.
Both cans included the same ingredients, whole tomatoes, puree, salt, citric acid, and a little basil. When shopping you want to always read the labels, some brands might add sugar which will make them sweeter and the amount of salt can also affect the flavor of the product.
I took the cans home, simmered over low heat, and did what any great researcher would do, I made all my neighbors try them out and vote for their favorite. The timing was just right because someone had just made some meatballs and they needed a sauce! After a few tastes, and a few more, some discussion, and a vote we had a clear winner. The American variety of San Marzano style tomatoes actually came out on top 4 to 1!
The feedback from my participants expressed how the American tomatoes were actually a little sweeter, tasted fresh and flavorful, and the consistency of a firmer tomato was preferred to the more paste like Italian brand. It was a close call for sure, both were delicious and one of the votes went for the Italian classic so it really is a matter of preference. But I learned that you can find a great tomato, one that is just right for you and your meatballs, right here in America!
Ashlea Hartz, N.C., RYT is a certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant and graduated from Bauman College in Santa Cruz. She is a skilled nutritionist who is passionate about educating the community on holistic nutrition, health, and wellness. Her training included an in‐depth study of the foundations of nutrition‐biochemical individuality, anatomy, physiology, macro and micronutrient requirements, and healthful food selection based on each clients’ individuality. She is also a long-time yoga student and teacher, who incorporates the yogic philosophy into her work through mindfulness and asana practice.