Birthed from the vine, tomatoes are inveterate wanderers. They originated in the coastal highlands of South America and from there traveled north to Mexico. The Aztecs included tomatoes in their feasts, and the Spanish conquerors spread tomatoes throughout their colonies and to Italy. Portugal passed tomatoes on to India. As the tomato wound its way throughout the globe, it was easily adapted into regional cuisines.
Wherever the tomato has journeyed, it has enhanced the taste of meat, fish and grains in sauces, salsas, ketchups and chutneys. But its omnipresence in world cooking has also enhanced health by delivering a rare nutritional component: lycopene. Lycopene is a pigment that gives tomatoes their characteristic red color and packs a punch as a potent antioxidant. The only known sources of lycopene on earth are pink grapefruit, watermelon and tomatoes. Of this trio of cancer-fighting fruits, the tomato has the highest concentration of lycopene and is also the most versatile and readily available.
Lycopene has been shown to help prevent prostate, breast, cervical, stomach and other cancers and to slow the growth of tumors. Diets lacking in lycopene — which appears to curtail blood clots — have been linked to increased risk for heart attack and stroke. By protecting against oxidative damage, lycopene may reduce the risk of visual disorders and lung disease caused by environmental pollutants.
Usually, processing robs food of its nutrients, but in the case of the mighty tomato, the opposite is true. Lycopene is more concentrated in cooked or processed tomato products and is also more easily absorbed. Eating tomatoes with a little fat aids lycopene absorption as well, so enjoying tomatoes with cheese or olive oil is both delicious and practical.
Full of Vitamins
Let’s not forget the tomato’s other nutrients: it is high in vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium and potassium. The fruit’s pH balancing effects have long been exploited as a salve for dry or acne-prone skin. Because of their natural alpha hydroxyl exfoliating properties, tomatoes are also used for skin rejuvenation in treatments such as wraps, masques and peels in spas around the world.
Whether you savor tomatoes in pizza or curry, or appreciate them on your skin, the redder the better — the protection is in the pigment.