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 them in their feasts. The Spanish conquerors spread tomatoes throughout their colonies. Italy and Portugal passed them on to India. Easily adapted into regional cuisines, the tomato made its way throughout the globe.
Wherever the tomato has journeyed, it has enhanced the taste of meat, fish, grains, sauces, salsas, ketchups and chutneys. But its omnipresence in world cooking has also benefit health by delivering a rare nutritional component: lycopene. Lycopene is a pigment that gives them 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. It’s also the most versatile and readily available.
Lycopene helps prevent prostate, breast, cervical, stomach and other cancers. It can also slow the growth of tumors. Individuals whose diet lacks lycopene — which appear to curtail blood clots — have an 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 them with cheese or olive oil is both delicious and beneficial.
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. Tomatoes, because of their natural alpha hydroxyl exfoliating properties, help rejuvenate skin in treatments such as wraps, masques and peels used in spas around the world.
Whether you savor them in pizza or curry, or appreciate them on your skin, the redder the better — the protection is in the pigment.