Tomato – a popular vegetable that’s actually a fruit and technically a berry. No matter what they are, tomatoes have the power to transform a myriad of savoury meals into tasty treats and make them healthier, too!
Despite being 95 per cent water, they are a great source of several important nutrients. One medium tomato provides you with a quarter of your recommended daily intake of vitamin C, a fifth of your vitamin A (as beta-carotene), 12 per cent of vitamin K and eight per cent of potassium. It also contains 1.1 grams of protein and 1.5 grams of fibre – mostly insoluble fibre, the kind that helps to keep you regular and supports all the health-beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Whatever the shape or size of tomato, they don’t significantly vary in their nutrient content so a cup of cherry tomatoes would be nutritionally equivalent to one larger tomato. Where they do vary, however, is in taste so you may be a plum tomato proponent, a cocktail tomato fan or a beef tomato enthusiast.
How about tinned?
Tomatoes are the only fruit or vegetable that doesn’t lose much of its nutritional value when tinned. Some of their vitamin content may be reduced a little but the protein and fibre levels are actually a little higher than in fresh tomatoes. Tinned toms also have more of the red pigment lycopene, which is a big health bonus (see below).
The majority of tomatoes destined for tinning are grown specifically for the purpose and are usually processed locally to where they’re produced. The bonus is that the tomatoes are mostly fresh and not some old rejects as people might think.
Green, red, orange, yellow and even purple – tomatoes come in many colours and it’s this, their pigmentation, that’s responsible for many of their health-promoting qualities.
The main tomato powerhouse is lycopene. This red pigment is a strong antioxidant which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
The redder the tomato, the more lycopene it contains and it’s the most concentrated in the peel. Tomato products, such as tomato juice, tomato puree and tomato-based sauces, actually contain more lycopene than fresh tomatoes because they are more concentrated. Cooking also increases the lycopene content. And you can up your intake even more if you have some healthy fats along with your toms as fat increases the absorption of lycopene.
Beta-carotene is another important pigment - orange in colour and also an antioxidant that your body converts it into vitamin A. Carrots are a rich source (hence the name) but ripe tomatoes are an excellent source as well.
Not many of us would think of tomatoes as skin food but they are! Due to their high lycopene content and some other powerful antioxidants, tomatoes and tomato-products help to protect your skin from sun damage. When studied by scientists, people consuming tomato products daily were much less likely to get sunburnt. Tomatoes are certainly no sun screen replacement but may prolong the time it takes for your skin to burn!
Tomatoes originally came from
You’ve probably tasted some deliciously flavoursome tomatoes in your life – but also some bland, watery ones, making you want to eschew them for evermore. The difference is in the ripening process. When tomatoes begin to ripen, they start to produce a gas called ethylene, which speeds up the ripening process.
If tomatoes are allowed to ripen in the sun, they fully develop their flavour and lose some water, resulting in a more concentrated, delicious taste.
Mass-produced tomatoes, on the other hand, are often harvested and transported while still green and unripe. To redden them and produce something that is at least half-ripe for sale, they are flooded with artificial ethylene gas. It produces the right colour but doesn’t allow for any development of natural flavour – hence bland and watery.
Whenever possible, it’s best to choose locally grown tomatoes – not just to protect the environment but because they’ll taste better, too!
Nightshades – but not deadly
Tomatoes belong in the nightshade family along with aubergines, peppers and potatoes. Most people are able to digest them without any issues but there are a few health conditions where caution is warranted. In particular, people with inflammatory gut conditions such as IBS or leaky gut syndrome may not be able tolerate them. Arthritis may be another condition that warrants a little investigation to see whether nightshades can aggravate it.
All these potential food sensitivities are very individual and there’s no hard and fast rule to guide you. If you suspect that nightshades may be an issue, experiment by excluding one food at a time to learn more about your metabolism. You might discover that just one specific type is the culprit.
Always eat tomatoes with their skins on – that way you’ll make the most of the health-protective lycopene that is, of course, most concentrated in the skins!