The amazing tomato! So delicious… So diverse… So popular!
Tomatoes have a long and vast history dating back thousands of years to Mexico, approx. 500 B.C. Tomatoes were a staple crop for the Aztecs and eaten along with beans and corn. Aztecs and other peoples in the Mesoamerica area used the slightly sweet “fruit” (yes, tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable) in many diverse ways. From a spiritual perspective, tomato seeds were believed to be “blessed with powers of divination.”
As a popular anti-inflamatory, tomatoes are the second most produced and consumed vegetable nationwide and are a rich source of lycopene, beta-carotene, folate, potassium, vitamin C, flavonoids, and vitamin E.
Did you know? It’s believed over 7,500 different tomato species are grown around the world today? In addition, tomatoes are actually considered a berry fruit! Dating back to the late 1800s, tomatoes were originally classifies a vegetable and it’s only been in more recent years people are learning more about the true facts.
Tomato Nutrition & Facts
Tomatoes (scientific name, Solanum Lycopersicum) are a member of the Nightshade family known as Solanaceae, which includes foods such as peppers, eggplant and potatoes. They are considered a high-antioxidant food and one of the best sources of Lycopene, a photonutrient that helps enhance immunity and reduce diseases like cancer. Although most people associate lycopene with the deeper colored red tomatoes, it’s believed to be present in equal quantities in organic yellow, green or orange tomatoes, as well.
Lycopene found in tomatoes offers beneficial effects when it comes to stalling cancerous tumor growth. studies show signs of cancer regression and tumor malignancy with supplementing with high doses of lycopene. When lycopene supplements are given to men who already have existing prostate cancer, the lycopene helps to reduce the size of the tumors and stops the spreading of cancerous cells.
While lycopene is most researched in regards to tomato nutrition benefits and prostate cancer prevention, it’s beneficial for defending against other types, too. Strong evidence indicates that higher lycopene intake can help protect against lung, stomach, colon, oral, breast and cervical cancers. Additionally, tomatoes supply many other forms of antioxidants and a wide range of vitamins, in addition to potassium and phosphorus.
1 medium tomato has about:
1 gram protein
3 grams sugar
5 grams carbs
1 gram fiber
6 milligrams vitamin C (26 percent DV)
1025 milligrams vitamin A (20 percent DV)
7 milligrams vitamin K (12 percent DV)
292 milligrams potassium (8 percent DV)
1 milligram manganese (7 percent DV)
1 milligram vitamin B6 (5 percent DV)
4 milligrams folate (5 percent DV)
Cancer-Fighting Antioxidants Found in Tomatoes
Studies over the past several decades have found that men who eat more tomatoes are less likely to suffer from prostate cancer. Cooked tomatoes are especially beneficial for fighting cancer because once cooked (especially with a source of fat, like olive oil) their rich source of the carotenoid antioxidants called Lycopene becomes even more available. Studies show men who eat as much as 10 servings a week (or more) of tomatoes, including from sources like tomato juice, tomato sauce and raw tomatoes, show a 30-40% reduction in prostate cancer risk associated with high tomato or lycopene consumption.
Reducing Lung Cancer Risk
Did You Know? Another amazing fact about tomatoes is their ability, like garlic, to inhibit the formation of what’s known as the Nitrosamine compounds, which contribute to lung cancer. So stock up on eating tomatoes and garlic for optimal health!
Tomatoes Help Improve Heart Health
Tomatoes’ antioxidants, especially lycopene, are known to fight free radical damage and thus protect the heart against oxidative stress. This offers protection related to heart disease (the #1 cause of death in the U.S and a number of other nations) and lowers the risk for heart attacks or strokes. Some studies have found that treatment with antioxidant-rich tomato extract can also reduce high blood pressure, lower cholesterol naturally and improve blood vessel health.
Studies show that healthy adults consuming lycopene in the form of tomato juice, tomato sauce, and soft gel capsules for one week had significantly lower levels of LDL oxidized cholesterol compared with control groups. Possible mechanisms for tomatoes improving heart health include enhanced LDL degradation, LDL particle size and composition, less plaque build-up, and altered blood vessel function.
Scientists and researchers understand that the many nutrients found in tomatoes partially function individually, but also work together in many ways to protect lipoproteins and vascular cells from oxidation. For example, lutein found in tomatoes can also help prevent or slow down the thickening of the arteries.
Oxidation is the most widely accepted theory for the development of atherosclerosis, or hardening and thickening of the arteries that can lead to cardiovascular disease. Tomatoes are also a good source of potassium, and can help prevent blood pressure problems due to low potassium intake.
Protects Bone Health
Recently lycopene has been linked to better bone health, especially in elderly people. Studies show the diets of older women found that those who lacked significant lycopene intake were at a higher risk for bone-related diseases and possibly even osteoporosis. This is why tomatoes and other lycopene-containing foods are recommended as part of an anti-aging, healing diet. Tomatoes are also a good source of nutrients like manganese, phosphorus and bone-building vitamin K!
Natural Anti-Inflammatory Properties Found in Tomatoes
The deep color of a good tomato is a strong indication of their high supply of inflammation-fighting antioxidants. Many nutrition experts tell us to “eat the rainbow” in order to reap optimal tomato nutrition. Tomatoes are especially known for having a trio of antioxidants called Zera-Carotene, Phytoene and Phytofluene, which are found together in many brightly colored fruits and vegetables. These are effective for helping to lower disease-causing inflammation, and thus, slow age-related diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and cognitive decline.
Benefits Skin Health
When it comes to fighting skin cancer with food, tomatoes should be at the top of your list! Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, which is crucial for keeping skin’s immunity, elasticity, appearance and complexion strong into older age.
One thing to note is that the vitamin C in tomatoes is most concentrated in the gel-like substance that surrounds tomato seeds, so wasting the valuable juice that can “bleed out” too much on the cutting board is a nutritional loss you want to avoid if possible!
Tomatoes contain a protective compound called Lutein, which also benefits skin health. Lutein is naturally present in the skin and animal studies have provided evidence of lutein’s significant protection against light-induced skin damage or skin cancer, especially from ultraviolet waves.
Tomatoes Enhance Vision & Eye Health
Lutein is also great for vibrant eye health because it protects the eye’s retina required for healthy vision. The retina is especially vulnerable during old age due to long-term damage of UV light radiation and oxidative stress from other factors. Among the many carotenoids present in the body, only Lutein and Zeaxanthin are found in that portion of the eye where light is focused by the lens, known as the Macula Lutea.
Research shows lutein in tomatoes appear to act like a natural macular degeneration treatment, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. For people not at a high risk for macular degeneration, eating tomatoes is just a good way to help improve vision and prevent cataracts or general deterioration of delicate eye tissue.
History of Tomatoes
Tomato origins first grew in parts of South America, particularly in the Andes Mountains according to historical sources, thousands of years ago. Wild tomatoes allegedly appeared lumpier and were not as sweet or smooth as the modern day kind. They spread throughout the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas when sailors brought them back to Europe on their ships.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is believed to be the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. Europeans first believed that tomatoes were a type of eggplant, and divided them into segments to be cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper and oil. After the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the Spanish distributed tomatoes throughout their colonies in the Caribbean and brought them to various parts of Asia, including the Philippines.
The tomato grows easily in warm climates, so it spread across the Mediterranean like crazy. Tomatoes began to be widely grown around the 1540s. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples, Italy in 1692! In Italy, tomatoes were grown mainly for decorations at first and weren’t considered a staple food for the common peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits. It took several hundred years for different types of tomato species to appear and for recipes like marinara pasta sauce, sauces for meats, soups and stews.
How to Buy & Use Tomatoes
While cooked and used as a vegetable, tomatoes are one of the most common “fruits” grown in the U.S today, and many people grow them in their own gardens at home and because they grow quickly in warm climates, they are very hearty and easy to grow! “Heirloom” tomatoes have especially become popular among home gardeners and organic producers since they come in a variety of bright colors, varying tastes and sizes. China, India, the U.S and Turkey are the leading growers of tomatoes worldwide.
Look for vine-ripened tomatoes at farmers market or specialty stores and ideally choose organic tomatoes when possible.
Did You Know? Studies surprisingly suggest that tomatoes grown in greenhouses (or hot-houses) develop only about half the vitamin C content as its vine-ripened cousin!
So whenever possible try to use fresh brightly colored vine-ripened tomatoes, which will hold a higher level of antioxidants and nutrients. Tomatoes that are ready to eat should be soft but still somewhat firm. Usually the softer they get, the riper they are and sweeter they will taste. Keep them stored out of the refrigerator and try eating them within several days of ripening (or make some sauce!)
On a side note, tomatoes are thought to be one of the foods that people rarely get to appreciate at their peak because many commercially grown tomatoes are picked when under-ripe and green and then made to artificially ripen using greenhouses that hold Ethylene Gas. This might mean your tomato looks normal and red when it’s available for you to purchase in grocery stores, but neither will the nutrients be the same nor will the taste be comparable to the real thing.
Remember that the protective properties of lycopene, especially when it comes to cancer prevention, are most beneficial and absorbable when they’re consumed with a fat-rich food. This is why it’s a great idea to eat tomatoes along with healthy fats like avocado, olive or coconut oil, nuts and seeds, or fatty fish like salmon. Why is this the case? Carotenoids are fat-soluble nutrients, which means they get maximum absorption only when you eat them with a source of natural fat.
In addition, make a point of adding some real, oil-based dressing to your salad, or other forms to fat to veggie-based meals (including those with leafy greens or cruciferous veggies, which also have fat-soluble nutrients) in order to boost your absorption.
What Types of Tomatoes to Buy
You can use all types of tomatoes! There are beef steak tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, etc., and you can eat them in all sorts of diverse ways. Adding tomatoes to sauces or even having some in a juice or smoothie is awesome! Tomatoes also go great with garlic, oil, oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary, and other herbs. Tomatoes also go great with onions, avocado, peppers, beans and assorted leafy greens. Yum!
Important Note About Tomatoes
Although tomatoes come loaded with benefits, as a nightshade food they can aggravate certain health conditions for some people. Green tomatoes contain a substance called Solarnine, which can trigger conditions like arthritis or some other autoimmune-related diseases. Nightshade fruits and vegetables are also somewhat of a common allergy for sensitive people.
Many health professionals council people with painful arthritis symptoms to avoid nightshades altogether, although some say the benefits of doing this will vary a lot depending on someone’s exact tolerance – so it isn’t always necessary to do so. Tomatoes are also usually avoided by people with GERD, or other reflux disorders that create heartburn. Raw tomatoes are often times easier to ingest than cooked sauces, which can contribute more to health irritations.
Another issue tomatoes can trigger is joint and muscle pain. So laying off tomatoes might be smart to test your reaction. Be sure to talk to your health care professional for dietary assistance.
Tomatoes are such a great addition to many recipes and the Internet is filled with all sorts of fabulous ideas. From raw salads to cooked stews, soups and sauces, tomatoes are truly delicious nutrition.
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