Monday, July 25, 2011

Spotlight Food - Tomatoes...

Nothing screams summer like a nice juicy red tomato am I right? I love tomatoes, and while I do eat them year round I tend to eat them in larger quantities during the summer then in the winter. In the summer months my husband and I can go through as much as 3-4 pounds of tomatoes per week, while in the winter it tends to be a more conservative 1-2 pounds per week. My absolute favorite kind of tomatoes are just the simple tomato on the vine. I find they have a magnificent flavor, more concentrated then your average watered down garden tomato. I’m also a passionate eater of the Roma tomato which I use frequently, but don’t get me wrong, I do love all tomatoes, and wouldn’t dream of turning any variety away from my plate. Grape and Cherry tomatoes are particularly pleasing during the summer, and sun-dried tomatoes are fantastic year round. The tomato has got to be the worlds most versatile fruit, it really can be used a million different ways, in each and every season.


The Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is a fruit belonging to the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family. This delicious red gem has an interesting history starting with it’s origins. While we generally associate tomatoes with Mediterranean cuisine, particularly Italian, the tomato actually originated in Western South America, most likely in the highlands of Peru. While the exact date of domestication is not known it’s believed that the first domestic tomatoes may have been small yellow fruits similar in size and shape to cherry tomatoes, grown by the Aztec’s of Central Mexico. Though the tomato has been given many different names in many languages the word tomato comes from the Nahuati word Tomati meaning "The Swelling Fruit" Interestingly the Latin name for the Tomato Lycopersicon means "Wolf Perch" referring to the former belief that the tomato was as dangerous as a wolf because it’s a part of the nightshade family, and all nightshades at that time were considered to be poisonous The French called the tomato pomme d’amour, meaning "Love Apple" because of their belief that the tomato had aphrodisiac qualities; and the Italians named it pomo d’oro "Golden Apple" due to the fact that the first species of tomato with which they were familiar was likely the small yellow variety.

It’s uncertain who first intorduced the tomato to Europe. The Spanish Explorer/Conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first to bring the tomato back to Spain after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitian (now Mexico City) in 1521. However it’s possible that Christopher Columbus brought tomatoes to Europe as early as 1493.

After Spanish colonization of the Americas the Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. They’re also credited with introducing the tomato into the Philippines from where it spread to Southeast Asia. Cultivation of tomatoes began in The Mediterranean in the 1540's where it grew easily due to the climate. Interestingly the earliest discovered cookbook containing tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692, though the recipes used had apparently been obtained by the author from Spanish sources. Despite the growing use of tomatoes, and the fact that tomato cultivation began in Britain in the 1590's they weren’t widely eaten until the middle of the 18th century. The tomato was first introduced into the Middle East somewhere between the years 1799-1825 and entered Iran through two separate routes. One being through Armenia and Turkey, the other being through the frequent travels of the Qajar royal families visits to France. An interesting note is that the name for Tomato in Iran is gojeh farangi meaning "Foreign Plum" In North America the earliest known reference of tomatoes comes from 1710 when the herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them growing in what today constitutes South Carolina. It is thought that tomatoes made their way to South Carolina via the Caribbean, brought over by Spanish explorers. Though tomatoes were once an unpopular food due to the belief that they were dangerous or poisonous, they have now become one of the most widely cultivated and top selling vegetables in the world. Today Russia, Italy, China, The United States, India, Spain and Turkey are amongst the worlds largest producers.

Health Benefits

Tomatoes have huge antioxidant benefits due to their lycopene content. The lycopene in tomatoes has been extensively studied for it’s antioxidant and cancer-protecting qualities. In contrast to many other food phytonutrients whose effects have only been studied on lab animals lycopene from tomatoes has been repeatedly studied in humans and found to be protective against a growing list of cancers. From colorectal, prostate, breast, intestinal, lung, and pancreatic cancer. However while lycopene is a very important antioxidant phytonutrient, recent research shows that when it comes to tomatoes protective effects against prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease it’s not due simply to lycopene alone. Rather, in certain instances, it’s the synergy between lycopene and other phytonutrients naturally present in tomatoes that help to provide some of the most protective health benefits. That’s not to say that lycopene itself isn’t important, but it does go along way in lending support for those who advocate whole foods in the debate over whether cancer prevention is best achieved through whole foods or through concentrated single compounds.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those persons with the lowest amounts of lycopene in their blood were 230% more likely to have or develop colorectal adenomas (The precursor to colorectal cancer)

A meta-analysis of 21 studies published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, confirms that eating tomatoes, especially cooked, provides protection against prostate cancer. When compiled the data from all 21 studies found that men who ate the highest amount of raw tomatoes were found to have an 11% reduced risk for prostate cancer. Men who ate the most cooked tomato products did even better with a 19% reduced risk.

A 3 year Canadian study, published in the Journal of Nutrition found that men consuming the most lycopene had a 31% reduced risk of pancreatic cancer.

It’s interesting to note that when it comes to lycopene and prevention it’s better to eat cooked tomatoes vs raw, because their phytonutrients become more concentrated when cooked, particularly into a sauce or paste. Heating tomatoes just makes their cancer-fighting properties more bioavailable to us.

It’s also worth noting that research has found organic tomatoes and organic tomato products to have higher levels of lycopene then conventional (non-organic) tomatoes and tomato products. When comparing the nutrient density of non-organic ketchup to organic ketchup it was found that the organic ketchup contained 183 micrograms of lycopene per 1 gram of ketchup. Which is roughly about five times as much per weight as a tomato. The non-organic brand contained 100 micrograms of lycopene per 1 gram of ketchup. Bottom Line? For the most lycopene choose the deepest, darkest red organic ketchup, tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato juice, and other tomato products.

Lastly it’s worth keeping in mind that lycopene has been shown to protect against many different cancers especially when consumed with fat-rich foods such as olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds. This is because carotenoids are fat-soluble meaning they’re absorbed into the body along with the fats.

More good news about tomatoes is that they’re a very good source of potassium, and niacin. Niacin has been used for years as a safe way to lower high cholesterol levels, and diets rich in potassium have been shown to lower high blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. In addition to this lycopene may also provide some protection against heart disease. In a study conducted in Boston of 40,000 middle aged and older woman who were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer when the study began. During more then 7 years of follow up those who consumed 7-10 servings each week of lycopene rich foods were found to have a 29% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease compared to woman eating less then 1.5 servings of tomato products weekly.

Another study conducted in Europe and published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that when a group of 12 healthy woman ate enough tomato products to provide them with 8mg of lycopene daily for a period of three weeks their LDL cholesterol was much less susceptible to free radical oxidation. A second study of 21 healthy individuals published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a high dietary intake of tomato products significantly reduced total LDL cholesterol levels while also increasing LDL’s resistance to oxidation.

A study conducted in Australia and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that when 20 people with type 2 diabetes and no history of blood clotting problems were given 8 oz of tomato juice daily, after just 3 weeks platelet aggregation (the clumping together of blood cells) was significantly reduced. While of special benefit for those with type 2 diabetes who are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, the blood thinning effects of tomato juice are noteworthy for anyone at higher risk of blood clot formation, however be sure to choose low-sodium unsweetened or naturally sweetened tomato juice.

Lycopene has also been shown to improve the skin’s ability to protect against harmful UV rays.

So there you have it, tomatoes are a wonderfully rich source of antioxidant and phytonutrient protection. In addition to everything else they’re also a fantastic source of vitamin C, A, and K, so load up on those tomatoes and don’t forget to eat them both raw, and cooked.


I love tomatoes! I love them raw diced into salads, sliced on sandwiches and wraps. I love them in cooked or fresh salsa’s. I love them on pizza in pasta, I love them in pasta and pizza sauce. I love them in curry, in soup. I love them broiled, grilled, sauteed, roasted. I love them in chili, in casseroles, on tacos, . You name it and you can pretty much put a tomato in it or on it, in my opinion. They’re even wonderful on their own, sliced thin, drizzled with a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar and dusted with a tiny bit of sea salt and black pepper. Be creative, and as always...

Happy and Healthy Eating to you!


  1. Wow, again I have learned a lot about the tomato, I will be sure to add them to my diet more often...I do love them but after reading your artical I think I should be eating more of them..thanks! ST

  2. Awesome info, as always! I looooooooove tomatoes & I wish I could eat even more of them daily. ;) - Matt