Though most people think of the tomato as a vegetable, and certainly use it like one, it is actually a fruit. In fact, it is more than just a fruit … it’s actually a berry! Call it what you will and treat it as you will, there’s no question that tomatoes are a superfood that’s rich in vitamins, minerals and especially antioxidants that improve our health and longevity.
What Are Tomatoes?
Tomatoes are a member of a plant family called the nightshades. Today they are the fourth most popular fresh vegetable, a fact made all the more remarkable by the fact that there was a period of time when people thought that they were dangerously poisonous. Tomatoes have a slightly sweet, bitter, acidic flavor, and that is why we tend to use them as a vegetable rather than a fruit. Their sweetness tends to be enhanced with cooking, but they are also delicious eaten fresh and raw.
It is believed that tomatoes were first grown in either South America or Mexico, then carried around the world. We associate potatoes with Mediterranean food, but the tomato did not reach Europe until the 1500s. Today they are enjoyed and grown all over the world, with more grown in China than anywhere else. There are literally thousands of types and varieties of tomatoes that can be grown and purchased, and though each has its own unique appearance, taste, and nutritional profile, they are universally nutritious, boasting a long list of nutrients and vitamins that provide its many health benefits. Some of the most notable of these are the high levels of phytonutrients found in the plant, as well as the antioxidant lycopene.
Though there are countless varieties of tomatoes, they all fall into four basic types:
- Cherry and Grape tomatoes – these are the smallest of the tomatoes, and they tend to have the highest sugar content and sweetest flavor. Varieties include Sweet 100, Sungold, and Black Cherry. Though these are frequently eaten raw, they can also be roasted to bring out even more of a sweet flavor.
- Plum tomatoes – these are medium-sized, oblong tomatoes that are frequently used to make sauces. Varieties include San Marzano and Roma.
- Salad tomatoes – these are medium-to-large tomatoes that can be eaten raw or cooked. Varieties include Early Girl, Valencia and Green Zebra. Their flavor profile tends to be sharper than other types. They are largely used for salads, but they can also be used to make sauces.
- Beefsteak tomatoes – these are the largest of the tomato types. They tend to be meaty and dense, and stand up to other foods. They are particularly well-suited to sandwiches. Varieties include Cherokee Purple, Brandywine Pink, and Black Krim.
1. Tomatoes are A Low Calorie Nutritional Powerhouse
The list of health benefits attributed to eating tomatoes is very long, and that is a result of its high-quality nutrients. They are not only rich in antioxidants like Vitamin C and beta-carotenes, but also have high levels of minerals and extraordinary levels of phytonutrients. Though different tomato types have different nutritional levels, they are roughly similar. One medium tomato contains:
Calories – 22
Protein – 1 gram
Fiber – 1 gram
Vitamin C – 6 mg (26% of RDV)
Vitamin A – 1025 mg (20% of RDV)
Vitamin K – 7 mg (12% of RDV)
Potassium – 292 mg (8% of RDV)
Manganese – 1 mg (7% of RDV)
Vitamin B6 – 1 mg (5% of RDV)
Folate – 4 mg (5% of RDV)
In addition to these nutritional elements, Tomatoes contain high levels of flavonones, flavanols, carotenoids and other phytonutrients that are associated with protecting against free radicals and other cell damage that can occur in our organs, bones, and more. Perhaps the most important of these is the carotenoid known as lycopene, which is what gives tomatoes their red color.
2. Tomatoes Are a Powerful Weapon in the War Against Cancer
Vitamin C is one of the world’s most powerful antioxidants, and tomatoes are very high in both this Vitamin and beta-carotene. Both have been found to prevent free radicals that cause cancer from establishing themselves in the blood system. Studies have shown that when people consume high levels of beta-carotene, it prevents prostate cancer tumors from forming, and the lycopene found in tomatoes has also been linked to prostate cancer prevention and lowered risk of pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, esophageal and pharynx cancer, and stomach cancer. Beta carotene has also been linked to a lowered risk of colon cancer and colorectal cancer. Additionally, the vitamin A found in tomatoes has been shown to make cells less vulnerable to the carcinogens found in cigarettes, and two of the acids found in tomatoes reduce the effects of the nitrosamines that the body makes when exposed to cigarette carcinogens.
Bottom Line: Tomatoes contain powerful anti-inflammatories that help protect against the damage caused by oxidative stress and inflammation. Because so many cancers rise from this type of damage, tomatoes are an essential element to reducing cancer risk.
3. Tomatoes Support Heart Health
Tomatoes contain high levels of Vitamin C, potassium, choline and fiber, all of which help to protect the heart against long-term damage. Taking in more potassium, as found in tomatoes, is one of the single most important changes a person can make to help cut their risk of heart attack. Folate is also essential to heart health, as it balances the levels of amino acids that boost the chances of suffering a stroke or heart attack. Eating more tomatoes has been linked to lower total cholesterol and triglyceride levels by helping to regulate the amount of fat in the bloodstream. This stops the clotting and plaque in the blood that can lead to clogged arteries. The Vitamin E and Vitamin C in tomatoes also contribute to heart health by preventing damage to the cells that make up the blood vessels that transport oxygen from the lungs, throughout the body, and to the heart.
Bottom Line: Increasing the amount of tomatoes in your diet is a powerful way of reducing your risk of heart attack and optimizing cardiovascular health.
4. Tomatoes Help Keep Your Bones Strong and Healthy
Recent studies have shown that the antioxidant lycopene, which is found in higher levels in tomatoes than in any other food, is directly linked to bone health. Women who had already gone through menopause and who were at risk for bone loss and who were fed a lycopene-restricted diet for a period of 4 weeks experienced increased oxidative stress in their bones, as well as loss of bone density. The researchers conducting the study concluded that lycopene not only strengthened bone health, but that removing it from the diet increased the risk of osteoporosis.
Bottom Line: The lycopene found in tomatoes is an important contributor to bone strength and reduces the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis.
5. Tomatoes Help to Keep Blood Pressure Under Control
When blood pressure exceed normal levels, it evokes a diagnosis of hypertension, which puts us at risk for stroke, heart attack and more. Increasing potassium intake is one of the most effective tools in controlling blood pressure, and the high levels of potassium found in tomatoes can help boost your levels of this important mineral.
Bottom Line: Boosting potassium levels has been linked to lower blood pressure, as well as a reduced risk of mortality overall.
6. Tomatoes Are Good for Eye Health
In addition to the antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene, tomatoes have high levels of lutein, which has been found to cut the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
Bottom Line: The antioxidants in tomatoes help to preserve and sometimes restore vision by fighting the effects of age and environmental damage.
Tips for Buying, Storing and Cooking Tomatoes
Tomatoes are available all year long, though the tomatoes that are locally grown in the summer months tend to have the richest flavor. Tomatoes can be eaten raw or cooked, and unlike other foods, cooking tomatoes seems to boost the body’s ability to absorb some of its important nutrients. Studies have shown higher levels of lutein and zeaxanthin, another carotenoid, in stewed tomatoes than in sun-dried tomatoes or fresh cherry tomatoes.
There are many ways to add more tomatoes to your diet. Cherry or grape tomatoes make delicious, healthy snacks that can be kept handy at all times to be eaten on their own, in salads, or with hummus or other dips. Salad and beefsteak tomatoes can be sliced into salads, while plum tomatoes are particularly good for making sauces and for use in cooking and roasting. Canned tomatoes can be added to soups and sauces, and even jarred tomato sauce has high levels of nutrients.