Whether you call it a fruit or a vegetable – it’s good for you.
The tomato suffers from an identity crisis. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? Experts are evenly divided on the subject. Ask a botanist and he’ll tell you it’s a fruit; the horticulturist says it’s a vegetable. Whatever it is, the tomato clearly combines the best of both worlds. In this case, what tastes good is also remarkably good for you, according to researchers.
“The most solid evidence links tomato consumption to a reduced risk of prostate cancer. Other studies have shown a reduced risk of cervical and breast cancer,” says Dr. James Meyers, professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University.
Tomatoes, which are the second most often consumed vegetables in the U.S., are a rich and potent source of multiple antioxidants including vitamin C, vitamin E, lycopene, beta carotene or provitamin A, and flavonoids. They also contain alpha-tomatine, which may lower cholesterol levels and is found at its highest levels in vegetative tissues and unripe fruit.
According to Dr. Meyers, lycopene, a naturally occurring pigment that gives tomatoes their rich red color, is an antioxidant and tomatoes have a lot of it.
“As an antioxidant, lycopene acts by scavenging or preventing free radical formation — think of free radicals as an unstable and highly reactive extra electron stuck onto a molecule that will easily react with other molecules in the cell, causing damage and potentially destruction of the cell. Free radicals will damage DNA, proteins and lipids so their effects are many and varied."
Good Reasons for Liking Lycopene:
- Research suggests lycopene may lower the risk of getting prostate, lung and stomach cancers and may play a role in helping to fight cancers of the digestive tract, cervix and breast.
- Lycopene may reduce the threat of macular degenerative disease — current studies are also investigating lycopene’s part in preventing diabetes and osteoporosis.
- The human body is unable to produce lycopene; it’s absorbed through the diet and is also found in pink grapefruit, watermelon, guava, papaya and rosehip.
- Lycopene in supplements is absorbed more quickly than tomato-based lycopene. Over time, plasma levels of the antioxidant are about the same for supplements and fruits. “Some studies suggest that overall health benefits are greater from eating whole fruits. The fruit contains non-carotenoid antioxidants as well as other phytonutrients that may have a synergistic effect on health,” says Dr. Meyers.
- Cooked or processed tomato products — ketchup, juice, sauce, paste — have higher levels of available carotenoids, and are better absorbed into the bloodstream than fresh tomatoes.
- Consumption of fats or alcohol with tomato-based foods increases carotenoid uptake. According to Dr. Meyer, “One study found that high levels of plasma antioxidants were obtained when tomatoes were consumed with olive oil, but not with sunflower oil. People in western cultures probably have enough fat in their diet so fat is not a limiting factor in carotenoid uptake, but it could be an issue in developing countries with inherently low-fat diets.”
- You can get all the lycopene you need each day by drinking two glasses of tomato juice, or by eating half a pink grapefruit, or one medium tomato or one slice of watermelon.
“For greatest benefit, people should eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables — at least a pound a day. Tomatoes should be part of the package, but you should not focus solely on one particular food. Variety and moderation is the key,” says Dr. Meyers.