I just got back from the farmers’ market where I saw, among many other things, tomatoes of every conceivable shape, size and color! Canadians, it’s time to get out there and experience what real tomatoes taste like and let me tell you, they’re nothing like the bland, powdery, tasteless fruit somewhat reminiscent of tomatoes you find in the grocery stores throughout the year.
And if you really love tomatoes, as I know many people do (although, oddly, I’m not one of them), take a page from the Italians and start canning. If you see a true Italian eating a tomato in December, you can bet that it came out of a mason jar, packed in the late summer, and left in the garage until needed. Italians, and I know a few, will not touch what passes for tomatoes in our grocery stores throughout the year – they’ve got to be fresh or canned fresh out of the field, not out of the greenhouse and they’ve got to be local. I like the way they think.
Tomatoes have a very well-rounded nutrient profile and contain a variety of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. They’re a good source of vitamin C, K, E, B vitamins and beta carotene. They’ve also got molybdenum, potassium, manganese, chromium, magnesium and are a decent source of iron.
But where most of the research on tomatoes has focused is on the carotenoid phytonutrient called lycopene. Tomatoes have several different types of carotenoids, which is part of what gives them their red colour, but lycopene has been the major focus of much of the research. This may be because lycopene is possibly a more powerful antioxidant than other carotenoids such as beta carotene and that scientific studies have found the consumption of lycopene-rich foods can reduce the risk of heart disease in women and can protect men from prostate cancer and atherosclerosis. It’s also been found to help prevent cancers of the cervix, bladder and pancreas.
A recent study found that supplementing the diet with lycopene boosted levels of carotenoids in the skin. These carotenoids actually protect against UVA and UVB radiation, helping to prevent sun damage. But note that lycopene levels are found at much higher levels in organically grown tomatoes; yet another good reason to choose organic.
Tomatoes, being rich in lutein, beta-carotene and lycopene, are good for the eyes since these phytochemicals promote good vision. Remember how mom always told you carrots are good for your eyes? Well, that was due to the presence of beta carotene, which is converted by the body to vitamin A, an important antioxidant that resists oxidative stress damage to the lens of the eye, helping to prevent cataracts and macular degeneration. Lutein and lycopene work in similar ways, acting kind of like a shield helping to absorb harmful UVB radiation and dangerous free radical molecules that can damage the retinal tissue.
And gentlemen, consider eating your tomatoes with some broccoli. A study published in the journal Cancer Research found that broccoli and tomatoes, when eaten together, have a synergistic effect that makes them even more potent against prostate cancer than either vegetable alone. “We think it’s because different bioactive compounds in each food work on different anti-cancer pathways,” said the researchers. Research published the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a similar effect when tomatoes were teamed up with green tea. Could we perhaps generalize and say eat your tomatoes with other potent cancer fighting foods? It couldn’t hurt!
Giving you ideas about how to eat tomatoes seems like a bit of a waste of time – tomatoes are in everything! I don’t have enough space to dedicate to all the different ways you can enjoy tomatoes, but I will say this – remember that the carotenoids, including lycopene and the precursor to vitamin A, beta carotene, found in tomatoes, are fat soluble nutrients; meaning they are much better absorbed and utilized in the presence of fat. This is likely why tomatoes are traditionally paired with an oil of some kind – olive oil, buffalo mozzarella, avocado. Be sure to eat your tomatoes with a healthy fat of some kind to get all their benefits.
Also, be sure to try all the wonderful different heirloom varieties of tomatoes that are in the markets right now. Not only do they all have subtle and unique differences in their flavor, they all have a different combination of pigment phytonutrient chemicals and variety is what you want in your phytonutrients!
The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale