Not too many centuries ago, tomatoes were thought to be poison. Thank goodness that dark age is over because we now know that tomatoes are not only juicy and delicious, but are full of nutritional value. In fact, they are rich sources of many vitamins and important phytonutrients, such as folate, vitamins C, A, and carotenoids.
Folate plays many important roles in the body, but it is especially important in protecting our cells from damage. If cells do become damaged, folate also helps to mark these damaged cells so our immune system can get rid of them. This system helps to keep damaged cells or cancerous cells from growing and spreading.
Vitamin C not only supports our immune system by aiding in the neutralization of dangerous free radicals in our bodies, but also plays supporting roles in gene expression, structural functions, and cell signaling.
Carotenoids and Vitamin A: Carotenoids are a group of compounds that give some plants their deep yellow, red, or orange hues. Some carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, can be used by your body to make vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for normal cell growth and development, particularly in the eye and the immune system, and also plays a unique role in cell specialization. Other carotenoids cannot be used to make vitamin A but are being studied for their antioxidant properties. Antioxidants in our food help to support our internal antioxidant systems in their important role of neutralizing free radicals and preventing cell damage.
Lycopene is also an important member of the carotenoid family. Tomatoes are an abundant source of lycopene, which is currently being studied for its potential anti-cancer properties. Recent findings in both cell and animal studies have found promising effects in inhibiting growth and promoting cancer cell death, a process known as apoptosis. While the potential application of this emerging research in the future is exciting, we cannot use these preliminary results to make any recommendations for humans at this time. Instead, we can use this knowledge as an encouragement to incorporate lycopene-rich foods, such as tomatoes, into a well-balanced diet rich in plants to provide the best protection against chronic illnesses of all types, including cancer.
Lycopene is fat-soluble, which means it needs fat present in order to be effectively absorbed by your intestines. Try pairing your tomatoes with nuts, seeds, a full-fat dressing, cheese, or other sources of fat to increase the amount of lycopene you are gleaning from those tomatoes. Also, perhaps counterintuitively, cooking tomatoes makes lycopene easier for the body to absorb more of the desired phytonutrient. So, to maximize your lycopene intake, include canned tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, and tomato soup, paste, and sauce in your tomato repertoire.
If you can, buy tomatoes at your local farmers market when they are in season. These tomatoes are bursting with rich, sweet tomato flavor. For the best tasting tomatoes out of season, choose vine grown, cherry, or plum tomatoes with the vine still attached.
A great tomato should be heavy for its size and have a firm, satiny skin. Always store your tomatoes on the counter. Only put them in the fridge if they are very ripe and soft and are likely to go bad before you eat them. When fresh tomatoes are out of season, try substituting canned diced, whole, or crushed tomatoes in your sauce of soup. They are canned at the end of tomato season when they are full of flavor and nutrients.
Tomatoes are delicious when sliced and topped with fresh mozzarella and basil, and finished with a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper as a simple appetizer. Though jars of marinara and pasta sauce are readily available at the store, sauces are really fast and simple to make on your own.
Homemade sauces are free of preservatives, and can be made to suit your taste. Simply sauté garlic and diced yellow onions in a little olive oil until tender, add tomato paste, canned or fresh diced tomatoes, some parsley, oregano, and salt to taste, and you’ll have a tasty and fresh homemade sauce.
Fresh or canned tomatoes, barley, and garlic are a delicious combo in our Provencal Tomato Soup.