Tomatoes will always remind me of a date I had in college. She was pretty and smart and it had taken months for me to get up the courage to ask her out. We were having dinner at a small café popular with students. Conversation between us was going along swimmingly when our salads arrived. Perched on the top of my salad was a plump, ripe, shiny red cherry tomato. The tomato was so inviting that I was distracted from our dialogue and went straight for my fork, spearing the fruit and popping it into my mouth with great expectations for the savory experience to follow. Biting into the tomato caused an eruption of tangy juice and succulent seeds that squirted out of my mouth like a popping pimple and shot across the table onto my horrified date’s white button-down shirt.
I don’t know what became of that girl; oddly, she never returned my calls. Fortunately, this traumatic experience did not diminish my love for tomatoes. And that’s a good thing. Tomatoes, it turns out, are fabulously healthy to eat in a multiplicity of forms including cooked and fresh.
The American Institute of Cancer Research reports that diets with lots of tomatoes on a regular basis are associated with lower risks for developing prostate cancer, stomach cancer, and pancreatic cancer.
One of the nutrients in tomatoes that may account for their cancer-fighting strength is lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid compound. Other carotenoids in tomatoes include phytoene and phytofluene. Tomatoes also contain fiber – about 2.5 grams per medium tomato. They are rich in vitamin C, with a single medium tomato supply 66% of the recommended daily allowance. B-vitamins, potassium, and alpha- and beta- carotene are additional nutrients found in tomatoes that are health-promoting.
Cooked tomatoes are actually better than raw tomatoes. Cooking makes the nutrients, especially the lycopene, more available for absorption by your body. So here’s an irony – canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste seem to be great choices, evidently better than fresh. Although it’s probably a good idea to have fresh raw tomatoes several times a week as well. When selecting canned tomatoes read the label carefully – most are loaded with excess sodium. Buy low-sodium or no-sodium-added tomatoes.
A friend of mine recently told me that she had been advised not to eat tomatoes because they would worsen her osteoarthritis. Tomatoes are a member of the “nightshade” family of vegetables which includes potatoes and peppers as well. The idea that nightshade vegetables aggravate osteoarthritis is as unfounded as it is old. There is simply no evidence to support this assertion. Tomatoes won’t make your arthritis worse and they may well help prevent cancer – you should eat them.
Here’s another useful tip – you can’t get the good-for-you benefits of tomatoes in a pill, you have to eat them. Supplement manufacturers have already started marketing lycopene supplements. Lycopene is only one of the good things in tomatoes; there are many others, and it is this nature-perfect combination of nutrients in tomatoes that gives them their cancer fighting ability. Single nutrient supplements like beta-carotene, or vitamin E have been consistently shown to be unhelpful compared to eating the whole foods from which they come. Skip the pills and eat your tomatoes (along with your broccoli, spinach, beans, zucchini, blueberries, apples, etc.)
Finally, eat your tomatoes with your mouth firmly closed.