Poisonous tomatoes? Our ancestors thought so. Guilty by association, tomatoes are part of the Solanacea family that includes several toxic siblings. Originating in Peru and further domesticated in Central America, tomatoes needed approval by the Italians before being accepted in Europe and ultimately America. The first mention of the tomato in European literature is traced to an herbal description written in 1544 that described Italians dining on yellow tomatoes with oil, salt, and pepper. Many years later, a couple of Catholic priests returning from travels introduced the first red tomatoes to Italy. Two hundred years later in colonial America, however, tomatoes were still avoided and regarded merely as an ornamental.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the earliest American tomato farmers. He grew them in the late 1700s with his daughter and ate them in gumbo soups, as green tomato pickles, and as tomato preserves. By the early 1800’s, New Orleans cuisine included tomatoes. But it wasn’t until the 19th century, with the influence of a growing Italian-born population, did our cookbooks begin including tomato-based recipes.
Today, Americans eat more than 22 pounds of tomatoes every year, half as ketchup and tomato sauce. You may be surprised, however, that salsa has surpassed ketchup as the top-selling condiment. The growing Hispanic population in the U.S., as well as the popularity of Mexican food in general, has boosted salsa sales in recent years.
While tomatoes are a good source of potassium and vitamin C, it is the lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, which has caught the attention of the medical community.To date 35 studies have shown a positive relationship between blood lycopene levels and the reduced risk of developing cancer.[i]
Breast cancer (prevention). In a study of more than 700 women (289 with breast cancer, 442 without), the dietary intake of lycopene was estimated. Researchers found that those consuming the most lycopene in the control group primarily from tomato-based products had a 36% reduced risk of developing breast cancer. These results held true even after factoring out six other nutrients known to protect against breast cancer.[ii]
Prostate cancer (prevention). Similarly, for men, regular consumption of lycopene is linked with a reduced incidence of prostate cancer. A 13-year case-control study of nearly 600 men, some with prostate cancer and some without, controls with the highest intake of lycopene had a 60% reduced risk of developing prostate cancer.[iii] Researchers suggest that men aim for 6 milligrams or more per day (see chart that follows).
Prostate cancer (treatment). Thirty-two patients with localized prostate cancer were fed a tomato sauce-rich diet (providing 30 milligrams of lycopene daily) for three weeks prior to surgery. The increased tomato sauce intake resulted in a significant reduction in prostate tissue damage and PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels compared to pre-intervention levels.[iv]
Lung cancer (prevention). There is epidemiological evidence that lycopene intake is protective against lung cancer for non-smokers. Men consuming 12 milligrams of lycopene from foods each day and women consuming 6.5 milligrams were found to have a significantly lower risk of developing lung cancer.
It is estimated that 85% of dietary lycopene in the American diet comes from tomato-derived products such as tomato juice or paste. Cooking tomatoes to produce paste, tomato juice, ketchup, sauce, and salsa makes lycopene more easily absorbed.
Lycopene Content of Foods
Tomatoes, raw red
Tomatoes and Pesticides According to the Environmental Working Group, tomatoes are ranked 19th out of 47 fruits and vegetables for pesticide contamination. The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce (see below) ranks pesticide contamination for 47 popular fruits and vegetables based on an analysis of more than 100,000 tests that were conducted by the USDA from 1992-2001. Pesticide residues were measured in six different ways, after which a composite score was determined and assigned to each crop.
Not that many years ago, there were very few organic tomato-based products available on the market. I remember when Muir Glen and Eden Foods were the two canned tomatoes choices. Today, most natural food stores sell four or more brands of organic tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, ketchup, and salsa.
Taste Test A small group of friends tasted the following ketchup brands: Heinz Organic, Muir Glen, and Annie’s Naturals. Annie’s ketchup, with ingredients that include allspice and clover powder, was the clear winner. If you’re looking for traditional taste, the organic Heinz ketchup scored well.
We also tested three pasta sauces: Seeds of Change - Roasted Garlic and Onion, Amy’s- Garlic Mushroom, and Walnut Acres- Roasted Garlic. The Seeds of Change pasta sauce was our favorite and for garlic lovers, the Walnut Acres sauce scored well.
Hippie Wisdom Since fresh tomatoes are abundant this time of year, here are a few buying and storing suggestions:
Buy vine-ripened tomatoes. They only fully develop flavor when left to ripen on the vine.
Smell your tomatoes. The most flavorful are those that are most fragrant. The stem end should smell like the plant itself.
Do not refrigerate tomatoes. The cold temperature changes the texture and causes flavor loss. Instead, ripen them in a brown bag, away from direct sunlight, which softens them.
Look for canned tomato products, salsas, and ketchup that contain:
Natural ingredients, like tomatoes, garlic, basil, and oregano,
Organic ingredients, and
No artificial flavorings or preservatives. Citric acid is acceptable.
- Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD
[i] Giovannucci, E. “Tomatoes, tomato-based products, lycopene, and cancer: review of the epidemiologic literature.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 91(1999): 317-31.
[ii] Levi, F., et al. “Dietary intake of selected micronutrients and breast-cancer risk.” International Journal of Cancer 91 (2001):260-3.
[iii] Gann, P.H., et al. “Lower prostate cancer risk in men with elevated plasma lycopene levels: results of a prospective analysis.” Cancer Research 59(1999):1225-30.
[iv] Chen, L., et al. “Oxidative DNA damage in prostate cancer patients consuming tomato sauce-based entrees as a whole-food intervention.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 93 (2001): 1872-9.