They come in a variety of colors: purple, black, yellow, orange, red or green. Tomatoes are a fruit available in sizes ranging from a beef steak, weighing up to two pounds, to a grape tomato (which are actually baby Romas) the size and shape of a grape. The tomato is native to the coastal highlands of South America. Tomatoes arrived in North America before the Revolutionary War, with the earliest reference to them in 1710, when an herbalist reported seeing them in what is now South Carolina. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the tomato gained popularity in the U.S.
Tomatoes, along with potatoes, eggplant, peppers and goji berries belong to the nightshade or Solanaceae family, a group of plants that grow in the shade of night instead of during the day. Tomatoes offer flavor, color and nutrients to support and enhance many different dishes. Yellow and orange tomatoes tend to be less acidic and have a sweeter flavor than red tomatoes. Because of their low acidity they have almost a fruity, tropical flavor. Green tomatoes are tart, with a citrus tang because their sugars aren’t developed completely. Blackish and purple varieties have a complex flavor similar to that of red wine. Fresh tomatoes are available year-round, with peak season being June through September.
Tomatoes are excellent sources of free radical-scavenging vitamins A and C as well as vitamin K, important for bone heath. Tomatoes are good sources of enzyme-promoting molybdenum, heart-healthy potassium, vitamin B6, folate and dietary fiber. Tomatoes are good sources of magnesium, niacin, vitamin E, iron, vitamin B1, phosphorus and copper. Lycopene is probably the most common carotenoid that tomatoes are associated with, however, tomatoes contain a variety of phytonutrients including beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxathin; flavonoids; hydroxycinnamic acids; glycosides and fatty acid derivates.
Intake of tomatoes has long been linked to heart health. Fresh tomatoes and tomato extracts have been show to help lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Tomatoes haven’t been well researched for all types of cancers, but they have repeatedly been shown to provide us with anti-cancer benefits. The risk for many types of cancer starts out with chronic oxidative stress and chronic unwanted inflammation. For this reason, foods that provide strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support are often foods that show cancer prevention properties.
The best-researched type of cancer in relationship to tomato intake is prostate cancer. The verdict is clear: Tomatoes can definitely help lower risk of prostate cancer in men. One key tomato nutrient that has received special focus in prostate cancer prevention is alpha-tomatine.
Alpha-tomatine is a saponin phytonutrient and has shown the ability to alter metabolic activity in developing prostate cancer cells. It’s also been shown to trigger programmed cell death (apoptosis) in prostate cancer cells that are fully formed. Research on alpha-tomatine has also been conducted for non-small cell lung cancer, with similar findings.
Along with prostate cancer and non-small cell lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and breast cancer are the two best-studied areas involving tomatoes and cancer risk. Research on tomatoes and breast cancer risk has largely focused on the carotenoid lycopene, and there is fairly well documented risk reduction for breast cancer in association with lycopene intake.
Tomatoes can be served in omelets or frittatas for breakfast, salads or sandwiches for lunch and in casseroles or quiches for dinner. They are a very versatile food.
For a quick summer meal, that doesn’t require cooking, try this nutritious sandwich.
Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella Sandwich
Loaf of Italian bread
6-7 fresh basil leaves, chopped
2-3 large tomatoes, sliced
4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced thin
⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ cup balsamic vinegar
Slice the bread in half lengthwise. Layer the basil, tomato slices and mozzarella cheese between the two halves of bread. Cut into 4-6 portions. In a small dish combine the red pepper flakes and balsamic vinegar. Use as a dipping sauce.