Did you know? There was a time in history when people thought that tomatoes were poisonous and to be avoided at all costs. In Europe, according to the Smithsonian, tomatoes were called “poison apples,” because aristocrats who ate them got sick and even died – but it turned out that it was the high lead content in the pewter plates they used and not the fruit (yes, it is a fruit technically because it contains seeds; in 1893, the US Supreme Court ruled to classify it as a vegetable as this is how it is used in cooking). In those olden days, the tomato was classified as “deadly nightshade” and therefore, not edible.
This delicious summertime favorite actually originated with the Aztecs – who called it “tomatl” and, well, unfortunately, used it ceremoniously with human sacrifice.
Of course, all that changed – and quite the 180-degree change, too: it became known as “the love apple.” And it changed with the Italians, as 16th century herbalist Pietro Andrea Matthiole, who named it “pomi d’oro” (apples of gold) classified it as a mandrake or aphrodisiac.
And so … tomatoes became popular to eat. Each year, the average American consumes between 22 and 24 pounds of tomatoes – half of that, though is in the form of ketchup and tomato sauce.
Since then, the juicy fruit with a slight touch of sweetness has been found to have numerous health benefits. Yes, you can purchase tomatoes all year long, but their season is summer, and the re’s nothing better than homegrown and local produce. And the fact that tomatoes are so juicy, they help hydrate, which is a desirable characteristic of food during the heat.
According to the USDA, a 100 gram tomato (typical size) provides your body with 10 mg calcium, 11 mg magnesium, 24 mg phosphorus, 237 mg potassium, and trace amounts of copper, zinc and iron. Tomatoes also provide 25% DV vitamin C; they’re also high in vitamin E, and lycopene.
Interestingly, one research team focused on the combination of vitamin C and lycopene in tomatoes provided increased cell protection from DNA damage caused by free radicals.
Carotenoids such as lycopene provide the fruit or vegetable with its unique color profile – and lycopene is the principal carotenoid in tomatoes. Carotenoids are like specialty antioxidants that also possess other powers. Free radicals are nefarious compounds in the body that can ignite a biochemical cascade that increases risk of development of diseases and disorders. Antioxidants including carotenoids are protective as they disarm the reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and therefore protect the tissue or cells from damage. According to one study, lycopene is the most effective singlet oxygen scavenger of all the carotenoids.
And, authors of one research paper described how consuming lycopene (and tomatoes/tomato products) can reduce risk of certain health issues. They write, “Dietary intake of tomatoes and tomato products containing lycopene has been shown to be associated with a decreased risk of chronic diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Serum and tissue lycopene levels have been found to be inversely related to the incidence of several types of cancer, including breast cancer and prostate cancer.”
Another carotenoid found in tomatoes ix naringin, also found in high abundance in certain citrus fruits, which has been shown to exert several actions in the body beyond antioxidant – it helps manage inflammation, and supports cardiovascular and blood sugar health. One research team believes that naringin works by either upregulating cell survival proteins and/or inhibiting the inflammatory process.
Lycopene and Heart Health
Based on prior research showing that a high consumption of carotenoids can protect against acute myocardial infarction, one study wanted to confirm the link between carotenoid intake and AMI in men. A total of 1,031 middle-aged men enrolled in the Kuopio (Finland) Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor study were followed for 11.5 years and found that the risk of AMI for men with the lowest consumption of both lycopene and beta-carotene (another tomato carotenoid) was indeed higher than those men who had increased concentrations of both carotenoids. The same study cohort of men were also studied for stroke risk and found that those with the highest serum concentrations of lycopene decreased the risk of stroke in men.
A large determinant of overall cholesterol health is cholesterol, which can create atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). One in vitro study sought to clarify the link and determined that in human macrophages, lycopene dose-dependently reduced intracellular total cholesterol.
Cardiovascular health can also be compromised by platelet adhesion or aggregation, which can lead to atherothrombosis. One study looked at how tomatoes can provide anti-aggregation activity and protection of the inner lining of the arteries (endothelium) – protection against unwanted blood clotting.
Lycopene has also been found to support skin health and appearance. One study showed that after consuming lycopene in tomato products, subjects exhibited photoprotective effects. And, after 10 to 12 weeks, there was a decrease in sensitivity to UV-induced erythema (reddening of the skin as in sunburn).
Another similar study also showed skin protective effects from UV light. A small study of 9 volunteers who consumed tomato paste rich in lycopene and live oil showed a protective affect against sunburn after 10 weeks.
Tomatoes and the Microbiome
Believe it or not, tomatoes have been found to nourish the microbiome, specifically the lycopene content. One study compared raw and cooked tomatoes with their effects on the microbiome – and found that it increased probiotic activity in the gut, demonstrating a prebiotic like activity. In this study, while Lactobacillus reuteri strains prevented some of the tomato antioxidants from getting absorbed, the researchers found that cooked tomatoes increased L. reuteri’s beneficial activities in the gut.
Tomatoes have even more benefits but one of the more immediate is simply the “yum” factor. Oh, and did you know that lycopene bioavailability is higher with a touch of full-fat instead of reduced-fat dressings?
In summer, fresh picked ripe and juicy tomatoes can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and dinner in numerous ways – and of course, during any Sunday brunch as a Bloody Mary.