Does a tomato a day keep the doctor away?

There’s a growing list of health benefits associated with the “golden apple”

My backyard tomatoes- Black Krim and Matina

My backyard tomatoes- Black Krim and Matina

During the summer, there’s nothing more tantalizing than a home grown sliced tomato, topped with fresh basil and drizzled with a fruity extra virgin olive oil.

In nutrition circles, tomatoes are often thought of only in terms of the perks provided by lycopene, the pigment responsible for their red colour.  But these globes of goodness offer so much more. They also supply beta carotene, potassium, vitamin C, folate, vitamin E and a wide range of phytochemicals. And it’s these compounds that are now the centre of much research.

In a study,  published in the International Journal of Food Sciences & Nutrition,  in  subjects with type 2 diabetes – people at the greatest risk of developing heart disease –  consuming tomatoes on a daily basis went hand in hand with reduced blood pressure readings in addition to favourable effects on blood cholesterol levels. Other research  shows that tomatoes offer these same benefits in subjects without diabetes.

While many of the tomato’s nutrients are well known, others with less recognized names such as ferulic acid and saponins are responsible for a host of actions.  Japanese research isolated compounds that impact the liver leading to these  positive effects on blood cholesterol and triglyceride readings.

Tomatoes first became nutritional superstars over a decade and a half ago when Harvard researchers found that in a group of 47,000 male health professionals, those who consumed the most tomato products over a six-year period had significantly fewer cases of prostate cancer.

They then zeroed in on lycopene, the carotenoid found in these foods.  Lycopene has also been found to have powerful antioxidant action, one of the ways in which it’s connected to defending against certain cancers and heart diseases. University of Toronto researchers, though, added tomatoes with their lycopene to the list of foods offering protection against the bone-thinning disease, osteoporosis.  They found that through its antioxidant action,   the lycopene found in tomatoes – the equivalent to two glasses of tomato juice – prevented bone-thinning in their study subjects.

Red tomatoes, the kind you see most often at the supermarket nowadays, were just one of the varieties commonly eaten. Their name in Italian, pomodoro, means “golden apple” which suggests that tomatoes were once more likely yellow. Heirloom varieties, which are older types of plants that have not been hybridized, often include purple-coloured and even striped green tomatoes.  And each of these colours offers assorted perks like antioxidant action.

But even if you stick with good ol’ red tomatoes, there’s evidence that which part you eat impacts the benefits you’ll reap. For example, the gel around the tomato seeds act as potent protectors against developing blood clots which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. But this leads to an issue of how you prepare tomatoes when cooking. Recipes that call for seeding the tomatoes for a smoother texture can shortchange you of these benefits, as can peeling them. Much of the lycopene is found right in the tomato peel. So while you may want to peel and seed your tomatoes for a special dish, consider skipping that step for everyday eating.

Up next:  Raw or cooked, processed or fresh – which offers more health perks?
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Do you have a favourite tomato variety or way to prepare them during the summer? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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3 Comments on “Does a tomato a day keep the doctor away?”

  1. Paulette Gougeon
    August 5, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    I no longer peel apples when I make apple sauce as my immersion blender purees pulp peel and all quite nicely. (seeds & core removed of course) Last year when I made a batch of cabbage rolls, I cooked cubed fresh tomatoes (from the vine mmmmm) to make tomato sauce for the medium to immerse the cabbage rolls for cooking. Again I used the immersion blender to puree the cooked tomato. Being “slightly” lazy, I didn’t bother to seed the tomatoes. The resulting sauce was perfectly smooth. I suspect the tomato seeds are soft enough that the blender completely breaks them down. I am considering making up a bunch of plain tomato sauce and freezing it this fall for use throughout the year. Now I have a health benefit reason to leave the seeds in the tomatoes. I am no longer too lazy to seed them, I am making sure I maximize the health benefits of the lovely fresh tomatoes. My immersion blender is one of the best kitchen tools I have.

  2. August 5, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

    Thanks for the laugh, Paulette! Someone who makes applesauce from scratch and freezes tomatoes sauce from fresh tomatoes can hardly be described as being lazy! If only everyone were as lazy …. :) I also wanted to mention that when it comes to plant foods, the research is overwhelming in showing that whole foods offer much more than the sum of their parts. Whether it’s the peel of an apple or tomato or the skin on an almond, there are so many more health perks when you do so. After researching my book, it was one of the reasons I used “whole foods” in the title.

  3. August 12, 2014 at 5:24 pm #

    Great article, I honestly didn’t know that tomatoes have more health benefits than just lycopene. I’ve always loved eating tomatoes the fresh red ones to be more specific, I usually have it as a salad and also in sandwiches. For some reason though I was never a fan of tomato juice, I just don’t like its texture and the taste together. When I was a child my mom was growing tomatoes in our backyard and we always had a regular supply of fresh tomatoes, which is probably why I love tomatoes because it was already introduce to me at such a young age. It’s nice to know that I’m getting more from tomatoes than what I expected. Thank you for sharing this.

    Regards,
    Sam

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