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Rich, red, ripe, luscious tomatoes were once thought to be poisonous. Well, they do belong to the same family as the poisonous belladonna or deadly nightshade family, but tomatoes are another matter. They were, for centuries, thought to be toxic, possibly causing appendicitis, cancer and what was called “brain fever”. But one man, Robert Johnson, thought otherwise. On September 26, 1820, he announced to the townsfolk of Salem, New Jersey, that he would publicly eat, not just one, but a whole basket of tomatoes. The dear folk of Salem were so excited that about 2000 spectators arrived to witness what they really thought would be a case of suicide. He certainly did not die and tomatoes have become a worldwide source of important life-giving compounds that can help to prevent some serious illnesses from heart disease to cataracts and possibly some forms of cancer.
Perhaps one of the most important elements in tomatoes is a substance called ‘lycopene’. It has the ability, apparently, to act as an antioxidant; that is, it helps to neutralize some molecules known as free radicals before they can cause damage to the cells of the body. They also contain potassium, which helps to neutralise the acid end-products of metabolism in the blood stream.
Italian people are noted for their high use of tomatoes. Together with other Mediterranean folk, they eat tomatoes almostly every day. While cooked tomatoes with a touch of olive oil appear to have the highest levels of lycopene, fresh, raw tomatoes have plenty of this protective substance with the added benefit of vitamin C, which is destroyed by cooking.
Researchers in Italy found that people who ate seven or more servings of fresh raw tomatoes per week had a 60 percent lower chance of developing stomach or bowel cancers than folk who ate two servings or less. Harvard researchers looking at over 40,000 men who ate at least ten servings of tomatoes per week, whether cooked or raw, were able to cut their risk of developing prostate cancer by 45 percent.
It has been found that tomatoes also contain two powerful compounds, coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid. These can have a beneficial effect for those exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke. Joseph Hotchkiss, PhD, professor of food chemistry and toxicology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York has demonstrated that while it was believed that the vitamin C of tomatoes and other fruits blocked the bad effects of even second-hand tobacco smoke, the benefits of tomatoes were still seen after the vitamin C had been removed. It was found that the benefits of coumaric and chlorogenic acids are also found in other fruits and vegetables such as carrots, green peppers, pineapples and strawberries. It is now suggested that those who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of lung diseases.
Lycopene, coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid are not the end of the story. Tomatoes are also a good source of vitamin A, which has been shown to boost immunity and benefit the skin. One medium tomato can provide 766 international units (IU), which is about 15 percent of average daily need. They also have good supplies of both potassium and iron, which needs vitamin C for proper absorption.
Look for the best shade of red. Sadly too many tomatoes are picked a little green so that they will carry for market, but vine ripened are better. Ripe red tomatoes can have up to four times more beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) than green, immature ones. Try other varieties also. Roma tomatoes are fleshier and cherry tomatoes ripen easier.
No Magic Bullet
There is no single food that will guarantee good health and this is also true of tomatoes. No single food or nutrient is so strong that it alone can stop big health problems, but a ‘veggie burger’ won’t take the place of a large fresh salad. Real health benefits come from eating a large fresh salad every day and for the youth it lays a good foundation for good health later in life. Research suggests that plenty of lycopene from tomatoes may help older people stay active longer. It has been found that those who eat the most tomatoes with other salad vegetables are the ones least likely to need help with daily activities such as getting dressed or walking.
Tomatoes were first cultivated in 700 AD by Aztecs and Incas. Explorers returning from Mexico introduced the tomato into Europe, where it was first mentioned in 1556. The French called it “the apple of love,” the Germans “the apple of paradise.”
Did You Know?
- Tomatoes gain weight as they ripen – even after being picked.
- Tomatoes are one of the most popular ‘vegetables’ in Australia. Potatoes are number one.
- In the Victorian era, anyone seen eating a tomato in public was branded a ‘wolf’ and barred from attending choir practice.
- Americans obtain more of their vitamins from tomatoes than from any other vegetable.
- Tomatoes are sometimes picked green and ethylene-gassed on their way to the supermarket right in the trucks. This can be accomplished during an overnight run.
- Green tomatoes will ripen faster if you store them with apples. Both give off ethylene gas when ripening and the extra shot of gas will make them ripen faster.