The long answer short? It’s because it’s not what’s on the outside, but what is on the inside, that counts. We explore why.
The day I wrote this article, I checked prices at a number of stateside grocers. Beefsteak tomatoes, ideal for salads, sold for an average of one dollar each. Roma tomatoes for stewing and canning cost 30 cents each. At 30 cents per ounce, grape tomatoes and cherry tomatoes were expectedly more expensive than the rest.
Compare that to the price of canned tomatoes and, even if you live elsewhere, the difference is almost always staggering.
On the same day, a 28-ounce can of whole peeled plum tomatoes from a value brand retailed for less than one dollar. At $3.80 for a 28-ounce can, even the San Marzano tomatoes from Italy were cheaper than some of their fresh counterparts from the produce section of the grocery store!
When you look at these prices, you can’t help but ask yourself: why are canned tomatoes so much cheaper than fresh tomatoes?
Why Fresh Tomatoes Are So Expensive
The answer, as it turns out, is rooted in consumer preferences.
When we shop for fresh tomatoes at the grocery store, we tend to pick out the ones that look perfect. You know, the model tomatoes! They are bright red, nice and plump, and have no bruises on them.
The problem that both growers and retailers have is that very few tomatoes look like this. Most of the tomatoes on the farm have imperfections. Some have cracks caused by dry soil. Others ripen unevenly, with green spots due to cold weather. Then there are those with yellow or green around the stalk, the cause of which is debated to this day.
This means that not every tomato grown on the farm ends up in the fruit basket at the produce section of the supermarket. Growers have to be picky about the fruit that they send to retailers, and retailers have to have stringent quality control in place in case they get bruised or rotten fruits.
All of this, as you can probably guess by now, is what drives up the price of the fresh tomatoes that end up in the store (and ultimately on our dinner table).
Why Canned Tomatoes Are So Cheap
Canned tomatoes don’t have to look beautiful to be tasty. In fact, as any home gardener can attest, some of the tastiest tomatoes are also the ones that look the least attractive!
Ironically, the same thing that makes fresh tomatoes so expensive—consumer preferences and the quality controls that growers and retailers need to implement to meet them—is also what makes canned tomatoes so cheap.
The canners and the growers who supply them with fruit don’t have to worry about the appearance of the tomatoes. They still have to do quality control to make sure that no rotten fruit ends up in the cans, no question about it, but the appearance of the fruit itself doesn’t matter.
Because canning tomatoes is a process that costs less and generates less waste than selling fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes are also cheaper than their fresh counterparts.
What Goes in the Can
If you read through the list of ingredients on the back of the label of a can of tomatoes, you will usually notice several ingredients: Plum tomatoes, tomato sauce, salt, and citric acid.
Depending on the brand and variety, the canned tomatoes may be peeled and whole, diced, or crushed—and the sauce may be thin and smooth or thick and chunky. The salt adds flavor to the sauce and serves as a preservative. The citric acid also preserves the fruit and prevents it from turning brown.
Related: Do You Drain Canned Tomatoes?
Whole peeled tomatoes fall apart, so opt for them when you want the tomatoes to dissolve and disappear into your sauce, soup, or stew.
Diced tomatoes, on the other hand, remain firm and retain their shape during cooking. This is because producers add calcium chloride to diced tomato cans so the fruit doesn’t turn to mush during canning.
Avoid crushed tomatoes. Conventional canning wisdom says that the lowest-quality fruit goes into crushed tomato cans. Besides, you can always cook down whole peeled tomatoes if you let them simmer long enough.
Fresh Tomatoes vs. Canned Tomatoes
If you want to cook up a sauce, a soup, or a stew, canned tomatoes are a better choice because they are cheaper and tastier than fresh tomatoes when cooked. Look for cans with a thick, chunky sauce that doesn’t contain too much salt.
If you want to serve tomatoes in a salad, use fresh tomatoes because they smell wonderful and taste sweet. A great trick to add variety to a salad is to add different types of tomatoes—beefsteak and Roma tomatoes sliced into quarters, grape, cherry, and/or cocktail tomatoes sliced in halves, and so forth.
And when it comes to fresh tomatoes, you don’t have to pay a high price to eat like a king. For example, you can buy large, unripened tomatoes for less and then store them on the shelf in your pantry for a week or two so that they ripen for adding to salads.
Canned tomatoes are cheaper than fresh tomatoes because the tomatoes themselves don’t have to look flawless to go in the can. But if you buy your fresh tomatoes unripened and ripen them at home, you can still get them on the cheap.