Plants produce various phytochemicals that are of nutritional and medicinal value to humans. Phytochemicals having antioxidant capacity are drawing increased interest from consumers. Population studies among Americans have consistently demonstrated inadequate consumption of fruit and vegetables. Improving intake of fruit and vegetables has been a major public health effort for many years with minimal success. Given this, it seems opportunistic to consider other approaches to enhance the nutritional quality of the American diet. One plausible approach is the development of fresh produce containing a greater concentration of phytochemicals known to improve health, thus while consuming fewer servings of produce, Americans would still have significant exposure to health-promoting food constituents. Controlled environments provide a unique opportunity to modify the concentrations of selected phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables, yet practical information is limited regarding methods effective in optimizing antioxidant capacity. Our research at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Program has shown that application of moderate salt stress to tomato plants can enhance lycopene and potentially other antioxidant concentrations in fruit. The increase in lycopene in response to salt stress in the tomato fruit was shown to be cultivar specific, varying from 34% to 85%. Although the specific biological mechanisms involved in increasing fruit lycopene deposition has not been clearly elucidated, evidence suggests that increasing antioxidant concentrations is a primary physiological response of the plant to the salt stress. Another experiment showed that low temperature during postharvest increased antioxidant capacity of tomato fruit while it maintained the lycopene concentration. More detailed study in this area is needed including accumulation of antioxidant phytochemicals as affected by environmental conditions during the cultivation and the postharvest.
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