What is Tomato?
The tomato is the edible berry of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The species originated in western South America and Central America. The Nahuatl word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word tomate, from which the English word tomato derived.
Where Did Tomatoes Originate?
Tomatoes originated in South and Central America. All the tomatoes we eat today are derived from Solanum pimpinellifolium — nicknamed “pimp” at a time when the word didn’t conjure images of jewel-handed canes and giant sunglasses — a tiny, wild tomato no bigger than a pea. The pimp still grows wild in northern Peru and southern Ecuador.
Tomatoes spread globally as the seeds were taken from Mexico and South America to Spain and across Europe. The tomatoes grown today, in the United States and elsewhere, are descendants of those European strain
Are Tomatoes a Fruit or Vegetable?
While most of the more outlandish myths around tomatoes have been cleared up by now, there’s one argument that still remains. Are tomatoes considered a fruit or a vegetable?
Often, they’re referred to as both. But technically (or botanically), they’re fruits. Tomatoes are ripened flower ovaries and contain seeds, which are characteristics of the fruit. If you’ve ever seen a tomato grow, it emerges from the same spots where the plant’s flowers have bloomed.
I’m not sure why this debate is limited to tomatoes, by the way. Here’s a very non-comprehensive list of vegetables that are, botanically speaking, also fruits: bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, olives, avocados, and okra.
But to many nutritionists, and in the culinary world, all the above are treated as vegetables.
Tomatoes don’t offer the same sweet flavor as most fruits. Their lack of natural sugar content compared to other “fruit” puts them typically in savory dishes and not desserts. I had never had any tomato pie just as yet but maybe I can bake one.
After all, as journalist Miles Kington is quoted as saying, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
So for now, perhaps we can continue to consider tomatoes to be both a fruit and a vegetable, given the characteristics that allow them to fit into both categories.
Types of Tomatoes
Perhaps if you were asked how many types of tomatoes there are, I would say that maybe four the most. Do you know that there are at least 10 fresh tomato varieties, ranging from cherry to vine-ripened?
But when it comes to the varieties available for your home garden, there are over 10,000 known varieties to choose from. Imagine that.
All modern domestic tomatoes (known botanically as Solanum lycopersicum, which by the way means “nightshade wolf peach”
The tomato originates in the Andes and is still found wild and wizened in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, with marble-sized fruit clustered on small vines.
In Spain the fruit was reputed to be an aphrodisiac, hence the love apple; and later it became the wolf peach since it was also believed deadly. Now everyone knew that the wolf peach was deadly poison.
On the other hand, the French called the tomato the pomme d’amour, or the Love Apple, for their belief that the exotic tomato had aphrodisiac powers. … While the tomato is botanically–speaking a fruit, it is culturally—and legally—a vegetable
Taken together, they possess no more than 5% of the total genetic variation present within the wild species and primitive varieties.
Some of the types most commonly seen in grocery stores include:
- Grape Tomatoes
- Beefsteak Tomatoes (Green or Red)
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Cocktail Tomatoes
- Roma Tomatoes
- Heirloom Tomatoes
- Tomatoes on the Vine
Typically, tomatoes are green when unripe and become red as they ripen. But they also come in many different colors outside of what you’ll find in the grocery store. At some farmer’s markets, CSAs, or if growing your own tomatoes, you may come across yellow, orange, pink, green, burgundy, purple, streaked and striped, and brown or practically black tomatoes.
And if you’re growing them at home, no matter what their color, tomatoes all have the same needs — full sun, fertile soil, and water.
Regardless of the variety you choose, tomatoes are full of healthy nutrients. They’re a great source of potassium and vitamin C and are a hydrating food due to their high moisture content.
Tomatoes are also packed with health-promoting antioxidants and phytochemicals, including several beneficial forms of vitamin A such as lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene.
Tomatoes are one of the best sources of lycopene, which helps reduce inflammation and is beneficial for conditions related to oxidative stress. Lycopene also appears to have strong anti-cancer properties, particularly in studies with men and prostate cancer. Lycopene may be the most famous antioxidant in tomatoes, but it appears in other red plant foods as well.
How much lycopene you can find in any given tomato is anyone’s guess. However, in one study, the amount of lycopene was reported to range from 2.5 to 200 mg/100 g in raw tomatoes — a factor of 80. The level of lycopene is directly related to ripeness and increased pH (that is, lower acidity). So the better tasting the fruit (OK, vegetable), the better it probably is for you.
To enhance your absorption of lycopene from tomatoes, eat them with some healthy fat. Lycopene is a carotenoid, which is a fat-soluble compound. As such, eating it alongside some fat can help boost its bioavailability for your body. Cultures that serve tomatoes with olive oil or avocados seem to have known this instinctively.
Studies tell us that heating tomatoes can increase the amount of lycopene that the body will absorb, by breaking down plant cells that trap the lycopene (puréeing has this effect as well). According to one study in the Journal of Food Science, the best ways to cook tomatoes and retain as much lycopene as possible are either by using the microwave or the stove top.
One cup of chopped or sliced raw tomatoes contains
- 32 calories (kcal)
- 170.14 g of water
- 1.58 g of protein
- 2.2 g of fiber
- 5.8 g of carbohydrate
- 0 g cholesterol
Tomatoes also have a wealth of vitamin and mineral content, including:
- 18 mg of calcium
- 427 mg of potassium
- 43 mg of phosphorus
- 24.7 mg of vitamin C
- 1499 international units (IU) of vitamin A
Tomatoes also contain a wide array of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, including:
- alpha-lipoic acid
- folic acid
The cooking of tomatoes appears to increase the availability of key nutrients, such as the carotenoids lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Stewed tomatoes provide more lutein and zeaxanthin than sun-dried tomatoes and raw cherry tomatoes.
10 Health Benefits of Tomatoes
The health benefits of tomatoes are best seen in their whole food form. In other words, when all their natural nutrients are intact and there’s been no high fructose corn syrup, excess sodium, or other unwanted ingredients added to them.
In their most natural form, tomatoes may offer the following benefits to your health.
1. Anticancer Properties
We already established that tomatoes are chock-full of antioxidants, which can help protect your cells from oxidative damage that can lead to diseases like cancer. The most studied anticancer compound in tomatoes has been lycopene, which, in addition to helping inhibit prostate cancer, may also help to fight gastric cancer.
2. Cardioprotective Benefits
It’s possible that a tomato a day may help keep the heart doctor away. Research shows that the amount of lycopene circulating in your blood is inversely proportional to the incidence of heart diseases. Why?
Lycopene appears to reduce the risk for inflammatory disorders, such as atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in your arteries that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. It also modulates cholesterol, which plays a major role in your protection against atherosclerosis and heart disease.
3. Blood pressure
Maintaining a low sodium intake helps to maintain healthful blood pressure. However, increasing potassium intake may be just as important due to its widening effects on the arteries.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), fewer than 2 percent of U.S. adults meet the recommended daily potassium intake of 4,700 milligrams (mg).
High potassium and low sodium intake are also associated with a 20 percent reduced risk of dying from all causes.
4. Anti-Aging Benefits
The antioxidants in tomatoes don’t just help protect you against chronic diseases. They may also help keep your skin looking younger by preventing photo damage. One 2019 study found that lycopene supplementation resulted in higher blood levels and may have a skin-rejuvenating effect on middle-aged people.
What’s more, one study found that green tomatoes contain a compound called tomatidine, which may improve the efficacy and strength of your cellular signaling, and even extend lifespan. So if you garden, and have some green tomatoes that may not survive the first frost, you can pick them early and maybe live longer!
5. Eye Health
That’s right, protecting your eyes isn’t just about wearing sunglasses or getting an annual vision exam. You can protect your eyes with what you eat every day, including making tomatoes a part of your regular diet. Tomatoes are high in vitamin C, which is a major structural component of blood vessels and tissues in your eyes.
They’re also a rich source of vitamin A, which lowers your risk for age-related macular degeneration and is an essential part of rhodopsin, a light-absorbing protein in your retinal receptors. Side note, if you’re interested in learning more about the top foods that are good for eye health, check out our article here!
6. Offers Protection Against Respiratory Disorders
Lycopene appears to have a protective effect in respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD, and one study even found that lycopene could suppress airway inflammation in asthma. Other research has suggested that eating antioxidant-rich tomatoes may even help slow the decline of lung function, especially among people with a history of smoking cigarettes who have since quit.
Studies have shown that people with type 1 diabetes who consume high-fiber diets have lower blood glucose levels, while people with type 2 diabetes may have improved blood sugar, lipids, and insulin levels. One cup of cherry tomatoes provides about 2 grams (g) of fiber.
The American Diabetes Association recommends consuming around 25 g of fiber per day for women and an estimated 38 g per day for men.
Eating foods that are high in water content and fiber, such as tomatoes, may help hydration and support normal bowel movements. Tomatoes are often described as a laxative fruit.
More research is needed to confirm the laxative qualities of tomatoes.
Collagen is an essential component of the skin, hair, nails, and connective tissue.
The production of collagen in the body is reliant on vitamin C. A deficiency of vitamin C can lead to scurvy. As vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, a low intake is associated with increased damage from sunlight, pollution, and smoke.
This can lead to wrinkles, sagging skin, blemishes, and other adverse health effects of the skin.
Adequate folate intake is essential before and during pregnancy to protect against neural tube defects in infants.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. It is available in supplements but can also be boosted through dietary measures.
While it is recommended that women who are pregnant take a folic acid supplement, tomatoes are a great source of naturally occurring folate. This applies equally to women who may become pregnant in the near future.
Safety and side effects
Although tomato allergy is rare, individuals allergic to grass pollen are more likely to be allergic to tomatoes.
This condition is called pollen-food allergy syndrome or oral allergy syndrome.
In oral-allergy syndrome, your immune system attacks fruit and vegetable proteins that are similar to pollen, which leads to allergic reactions like itching in the mouth, scratchy throat, or swelling of the mouth or throat.
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) compiles a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue. These foods are known as the Dirty Dozen.
For 2017, tomatoes are number 10, and cherry tomatoes number 14 on the list. Though it has not been proven that eating organic foods has overall health benefits, the EWG suggests that people should buy organic tomatoes where possible.
Buying organic minimizes pesticide exposure, though this has not been definitively proven to prevent disease.
Remember to wash tomatoes before eating.
Beta-blockers, a type of medication most commonly prescribed for heart disease, can cause potassium levels to increase in the blood. High potassium foods such as tomatoes should be consumed in moderation when taking beta-blockers.
Consuming too much potassium can be harmful to people with impaired kidney function. Failure to remove excess potassium from the blood can be fatal.
The nutrients of one food type do not give a complete picture of how to achieve a healthful diet. It is better to eat a varied diet than to concentrate on individual foods.
Tomatoes are juicy and sweet, full of antioxidants, and may help fight several diseases.
They are especially high in lycopene, a plant compound linked to improved heart health, cancer prevention, and protection against sunburns.
Tomatoes can be a valuable part of a healthy diet.
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Please share your comments below:
- Do you eat tomatoes? If so, what is your favorite type?
- How do you prepare your tomatoes as the main meal?
- What health benefits do you derive from eating tomatoes?
Information on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. We encourage you to do your own research. Seek the advice of a medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle or diet.
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