Tomatoes: Why You Should Eat Them

What are the healthy benefits of eating tomatoes? Tomatoes contain antioxidants, and can protect against many types of cancer. They are also of benefit to the health of the prostate, lower the risk of heart disease, and protect against nerve degenerative disease.
Food & Drink

Let's talk tomatoes!  You either love them, or you hate them; there's very few in-between that spectrum.  But there are things we can learn about these wonderful fruit/vegetables and how they can benefit us, let's see how.

It seems that they originated in Central and South America, and these early tomatoes were something like the cherry tomato we have today.  The Spanish conquistadors who came to Mexico discovered tomatoes there and took them back with them to Spain, thus introducing them to Europe.  I know you always wanted to know how they got there!

Yet, despite all this traveling, the lovely tomato had a bad reputation, being born into the wrong family so it seems!  The nightshade family of vegetables was feared as being poisonous---a superstition born of ingestion of the toxic alkaloids found in the leaves of these plants.  So, it had a lot to overcome to reach the level of popularity it enjoys today.

Tomatoes came to North America with the colonists, and were still slowly overcoming their poisonous reputation.  Other foods in the nightshade family include bell peppers, eggplant, and potatoes.  Today, there are around 7,500 varieties of tomatoes, classified by size and shape with the common varieties being cherry, beefsteak, globe, oxheart, plum, grape, and Campari tomatoes.  The humble tomato is very versatile being able to be grown in warm and cool climates, some varieties can be stored for months, and some are hollow inside. 

Today, China is the world's largest producer of tomatoes, followed by the United States, and Turkey.  It is also grown in Russia, Spain, and Italy.  The tasty tomato is actually a fruit, though it has been numbered among the vegetables due to its lower sugar content compared to most fruits.  Most are red, but tomatoes do come in different colors: yellow, orange, green, and brown.  Foreign nicknames for tomatoes are very interesting.  The French call them "pomme d'amour", love apples, and the Italians nicknamed them "pomodoro", or golden apples.

When selecting tomatoes, look for full-colored, firm, plump specimens with a sweet scent.  Tomatoes are best stored at room temperature as they are sensitive to cold, and the refrigerator will cause your tomatoes to lose some of their spark and flavor.  Out of the refrigerator, they will last up to a week.  Tomatoes are predominantly grown for their use in canning and sauces, and the most popular types for this are the elongated ones such as plum tomatoes. 

So, what good are these little beauties to us?  First of all, red tomatoes are very high in beta carotene and vitamin C, carotenes (lycopene), biotin, and vitamin K, B6, pantothenic acid, niacin, folic acid, and dietary fiber.  Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant.  Antioxidants help the body deal with the renegade free radicals that roam the body as the result of hundreds of chemical/enzymatic processes the body goes through every day in normal functioning.  These free radicals cause damage to our cells, and antioxidants are like the body's police, arresting and neutralizing these pirates.  Lycopenes are also highly protective against many cancers such as breast, colon, lung, skin, and prostate. 

Need some more reasons to eat these lovelies?  Tomatoes lower the risk of heart disease, cataracts, and macular degeneration (eye disease), and protect against nerve degenerative diseases.  Not just carrots are good for the eyes.  Here's good news for all the men out there---tomatoes keep your prostate healthy!  Studies show that men who ate two or more servings of tomato sauce per week were less likely to develop prostate cancer than men who ate less than one serving of tomato sauce per month.  Tomato sauce is good on many things, not just pasta, remember, so you can lavish it on meats, fish, rice, and many other foods. 

Lycopene is found in greatest quantity in red tomatoes, and cooking does not seem to affect its stability, in fact, heating seems to liberate more lycopene from the plant's cells, making cooked red tomatoes a better source of lycopene.  Also, eating tomatoes cooked with olive oil aids lycopene absorption---that's why they say a Mediterranean diet is so healthy.

Tomatoes can be served in salads, soups, sauces, and dips.  We use them to make catsup, and the delicious favorite on a cold day, tomato soup.  Green tomatoes can be breaded and fried, made into salsa, or pickled.  We love the delicious refreshing glass of tomato juice, so healthy and tasty, and a great pick-me-up.  Then, you can pick up those fabulous sun-dried tomatoes and put them in your favorite dishes.  Yum!  Tomatoes are acidic, so they preserve easily--get out those canning jars and make your own preserves today.

Finally, a few safety tips to consider when working with tomatoes---don't use aluminum cookware.  The high acid content of tomatoes will interact with the aluminum causing migration of the aluminum into the tomatoes.  Tomatoes may cause allergic reactions in some people, and along the same lines, some people who have arthritic conditions have been greatly benefitted by eliminating tomatoes from their diet.  It's those nightshades.  If you have kidney stones of the oxalate kind, tomatoes contain oxalates, so beware.  And remember, always carefully wash your tomatoes to remove pesticide residues. 

Tomato leaves and stems, as mentioned above, do contain small amounts of the poisonous alkaloid tomatine, but don't worry, this is not detectable in ripe tomatoes.  They're safe.  Oh, and don't forget, if you have dogs, tomato plants can be toxic to them, so keep them set apart from where your animals roam. 

To remove the skins of tomatoes, first blanch them in boiling water 15-20 seconds, then place them in a colander and rinse them with cold water.  The skin should peel off easily.  To remove the seeds, cut the tomato lengthwise and gently squeeze them out.  Now, you will be ready to cook up something really delicious and astonishing, like tomatoes au gratin, or fresh tomato soup.  For me, I'm heading to the kitchen to cook up my personal favorite, a juicy, tomatoey batch of cheezy lasagna.  Now, that's honoring the great tomato!

Leslie Pryor is a published author, teacher, and freelance writer.  My published book is titled: "In Search Of . . . Wisdom the Principle Thing".  Check out these websites for more information: www.lspryor.com, and www.wisdomtheprinciplething.com.

Photo credit: www.bigfoto.com

The Encyclopedia Of Healing Foods by Michael Murray, N.D., Atria Books, New York, 2008.  895 pages.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/tomatoes

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