Tomatoes! Juicy, colourful and delicious. We all know that tomatoes are good for us and we should include them more in our diet. But what are tomatoes and why, specifically, are they such a healthy food?
The tomato is the fruit of the Lycopersicon esculentum plant. Although tomatoes are closely associated with Italian cuisine, they are actually native to the west side of South America. First cultivated in Mexico by the Aztec civilizations, their use spread throughout Europe. Today tomatoes are popular worldwide. The largest tomato-producing country is China, followed by the United States, Turkey, India, and Italy.
Tomatoes contain remarkable amounts of lycopene (a carotenoid phytonutrient that has the highest antioxidant activity of all the carotenoids). But tomatoes also provide a unique variety of other phytonutrients, including other carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin), flavonoids (including naringenin, chalconaringenin, rutin, kaempferol, and quercetin), vitamins (A, C, K, B6, E), micronutrients (copper, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, choline, zinc, and iron). All these phytonutrients have individual benefits, but also importantly have synergy as a group interacting to provide us with a plethora of health benefits. On top of that, one serving of tomatoes gives you two grams of fibre, which is seven percent of the daily-recommended amount. Basically, a tomato packs one powerful nutritional punch, and they offer even more.
Tomatoes are a big part of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet. Many studies have found that people who mostly follow typical Mediterranean diets have lower death rates from heart disease and cancer. Indeed, intake of tomatoes has long been linked to heart health. Fresh tomatoes and tomato extracts have been shown to help lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. In addition, tomato extracts have been shown to help prevent formation of atherosclerotic plaques and the aggregation (clumping together) of platelet cells in the blood – a factor that is especially important in lowering the risk of heart problems like atherosclerosis. As a good source of potassium citrate, tomatoes can also help lower blood pressure. And at the same time, they are an excellent source of chromium, which helps to regulate blood sugar.
Tomatoes are a natural cancer fighter. Because of the well-studied anti-cancer potential of lycopene, a diet rich in tomato-based products may help reduce the risk of several cancers, especially prostate, breast, stomach and lung cancers. Tomatoes are enriched with high-powered antioxidants: lycopene, beta-carotene (which has vitamin A activity in the body), vitamin E, and vitamin C, that fight the free radicals causing cell damage.
Tomatoes also make our skin look better. Beta-carotene helps protect skin against sun damage and lycopene makes skin less sensitive to UV light damage, therefore leading to less-wrinkled skin. Vitamin A also improves the condition of hair making it strong and shiny.
The lutein and vitamin A that tomatoes provide help to improve our eyesight as well as prevent night-blindness and macular degeneration, a serious, irreversible eye condition.
Tomatoes contribute to bone health and help keep our blood vessels flexible. The vitamin K and calcium in tomatoes is very good for strengthening and repairing bones, and lycopene has also been shown to improve bone mass, which is a great way to fight osteoporosis.
So, how to eat tomatoes to get the maximum benefit?
First of all, store fresh tomatoes at room temperature; this way they do not lose their flavour. To enrich your tomatoes in well-absorbed lycopene, cook them with a touch of olive oil. This is because lycopene is located in the cell walls of the tomatoes and it is released during the cooking process. Lycopene is also fat-soluble. That means we get maximum nutritional benefit from tomatoes when they are absorbed with some fats. Eating tomatoes with chopped avocadoes, for example, helps our body absorb lycopene more easily.
Easy ways to eat more tomatoes:
- For a snack, dip cherry tomatoes in hummus or any other dip.
- Add sliced tomato to your sandwiches and wraps.
- Use stewed tomatoes in soups and sauces for pasta.
- Have a piece of toast with avocado and tomato slices.
- Make your own quick salsa with diced tomatoes, onion, chilli pepper, coriander, cumin, ground black pepper and freshly squeezed lime.
- Drizzle freshly sliced tomatoes and sliced mozzarella with balsamic vinegar and top with chopped basil.
- Make a quick bruschetta for an appetizer by topping toast with chopped tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and basil.
- Drink tomato juice or vegetable juice with tomatoes.
- You can even eat tomatoes for breakfast. Top scrambled eggs with chopped tomatoes – delicious!
- On a hot summer day enjoy chilled Gazpacho with your friends.
- Bon appétit!