Tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum, were discovered in South and Central America and introduced to Europeans after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in the 16th century. Various types of tomatoes are now culinary staples throughout the world and consumed in a variety of ways. The versatile fruits are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Hardy tomato plants grow on every continent except Antarctica, and worldwide production reaches over 159 million tons annually.
Tomatoes are one of the most commonly consumed fruits in the world. They contain so many vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds that scientists haven't identified all of them yet. Over 10,000 tomato cultivars exist. Fruits range in size from tiny cherry tomatoes to 3-pound steakhouse hybrids. Colors include red, orange, purple, pink, yellow, green, black, and striped. Each cultivar has its own combination of tart and sweet flavors, so almost everyone can find tomatoes to enjoy.
Lycopene is a carotenoid responsible for the bright red color of ripe tomatoes. Many fruits and vegetables lose nutrients through cooking, but cooking transforms lycopene to type easier for the body to absorb. This means lycopene in tomato sauce and other preparations is still very beneficial. The compound builds up in the prostate and may reduce risk of prostate cancer. Current research is investigating potential protective effects against breast cancer and cancers of the digestive tract, as well.
A medium-sized tomato contains approximately 300 milligrams of potassium, a mineral in which many Americans are deficient. Potassium helps the kidneys regulate fluid balance, facilitates electrical signals to the heart and other muscles, and plays a key role in moving nutrients and waste products in and out of cells.
Phenolic compounds are found in brightly colored plants. The chemical structure of these compounds determines their properties and antioxidant potential. Tomatoes contain hundreds of different phenolic compounds that neutralize harmful free radicals. Some also act as metal chelators and may protect against heavy metals ingested through food and environmental exposure.
Scientists at the Rowett Research Institute are studying a substance, codenamed P3, in the jelly surrounding tomato seeds. Researchers believe P3 stops platelets from sticking together, which could help reduce blood clots that cause strokes, heart attacks, and other health problems. P3 researchers hope to create an anti-platelet therapy without the side effects of existing medications.
Tomatoes contain several nutrients required for healthy eyes. The antioxidants lutein, beta-carotene, zeaxanthin and lycopene protect eyes from UV radiation and reduce the risk of macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and cataracts. Vitamin E helps maintain the inner lining of the retina, and vitamin A reinforces healthy structures within the eye. Both vitamins are needed for healthy eyesight and night vision.
Chronic inflammation of adipose tissue is associated with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Many bioactive compounds in tomatoes, including daphnetin, lycopene, zeta-carotene, and phytoene, have anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds may inhibit inflammatory cytokines and reduce adipose tissue inflammation. Reduced inflammation may improve glucose metabolism and lower the risk of developing diabetes.
Dairy products are often associated with healthy bones; however, tomatoes provide many essential nutrients for strong bones as well. Tomatoes contain calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, and vitamin K. In addition, lycopene prevents or reduces bone loss by disrupting free radicals that cause oxidative stress. Lycopene also inhibits osteoclasts, which are the cells responsible for bone destruction.
Atherosclerosis occurs when cholesterol and other fats form plaque on artery walls. This narrowed passage restricts blood flow and damages endothelial cells on the inner surface of blood vessels. Effects of atherosclerosis may lead to blood clots and more extensive cardiovascular disease. Lycopene and phenolic acids can lower cholesterol levels and inhibit plaque formation. Tomatoes are also rich in vitamin E, which lowers LDL cholesterol levels and protects endothelial cells.
Tomatoes are part of the Solanaceae family, which also includes belladonna or deadly nightshade. An alkaloid compound called solanine causes nightshade toxicity. Although tomato plants contain some solanine in their leaves and stems, tomatoes themselves contain only minuscule amounts. Some people believe foods in the Solanaceae family cause inflammation. Tomatoes are usually harmless, but people with elevated alkaloid sensitivity, especially those with autoimmune disorders, may benefit from avoiding foods in the nightshade family.
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