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Top Health Benefits of Tomatoes

The taste and nutrition, as well as the health benefits of tomatoes, have been highly valued. Enjoyed around the world, they are essential ingredients in the diet of many cultures. However, the plant has a spotty past, including myths, misconceptions and controversies, and the challenges of modern tomato mass production continue to spark debate. However, there is no debate about the intrinsic health benefits of tomato. Tomatoes are prized both for their nutritional value and for their delicious taste.

Tomato history

Peru is generally credited with the first cultivation of the fruit that is now known as tomato. Tomatoes of that day were tiny compared to modern tomatoes, but they were already a valuable food, bred for their flavor. From Peru, the tomato spread throughout Central and South America. The Aztecs of Mexico appreciated them and used them extensively in their cooking, including salsa. When the Spanish invaded Mexico in the early 16th century, the Aztecs developed a gruesome new recipe with tomatoes. The fruit was served with the meat of the Spanish invaders.

Some believe that it was the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortés who brought the tomato to Europe after conquering the Aztec capital, Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City. Others believe that Christopher Columbus brought plants to Europe as early as 1493. An Italian herbal document in 1544 mentions the tomato as a pomo d’oro, or golden apple. In 1597, the English surgeon John Gerard published a plant declaring that the tomato was poisonous and should not be eaten, causing the fruit to be excluded from British and colonial diets for a century or two.

There are various theories as to why so many believed that the tomato was poison. One theory blames the pewter plates, which were high in lead. Acidic foods like tomatoes caused some of the lead to leak into the food, leading to lead poisoning. However, lead poisoning occurs so gradually, over such a long period of time, that many consider it unlikely that tomatoes have been identified as the cause. A more likely theory is that the tomato is considered a member of the nightshade plant family. In fact, the tomato leaf is not safe to eat. Eating tomato leaves can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness and, in severe cases, can lead to death.

There was also controversy for a time about whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. Botanically, the tomato is a berry, a subset of fruits, but its content is more like a vegetable. Perhaps the best way to describe the tomato is as “the fruit that behaves like a vegetable.”

Mass produced tomatoes

Today, tomatoes are grown all over the world, adapted to a variety of growing conditions with thousands of cultivars. Tomatoes vary in size, color, and flavor, from the four-inch diameter steak beauties to the elongated plum tomatoes that are appreciated in sauces. Tomatoes rightfully take their place alongside nutritional superfoods, yet in some areas of the world, efforts to mass produce the fruit are causing concern among health experts.

In Florida, much of the land used for agriculture was extracted from the Everglades. Sandy soil and humid air do not follow the temperament of tomatoes, so farmers add amounts of chemical fertilizers to stimulate growth. The fruit is sent to the market while it is still green, before the sun has matured its flavor and color; tomatoes are gassed to make them look red. Compared to organic tomatoes, they have a higher sodium content, while they are lower in vitamins and minerals. Many of these tomatoes end up in fast food restaurants and supermarket chains. Consumers are encouraged to purchase locally grown tomatoes whenever possible. When not possible, canned tomatoes are healthier – Tomatoes found in canned tomatoes are generally allowed to ripen before processing.

Health benefits of tomatoes

Naturally grown tomatoes contain many valuable nutrients, including lycopene, which has been linked to cancer prevention. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants are nutrients that can slow or repair damage that can be caused when cells in the body metabolize oxygen. As cells take in oxygen, molecular bonds can break, causing products called free radicals. Free radicals try to stabilize immediately by clinging to the closest molecule. This process can damage healthy cells. Too many free radicals, or not enough antioxidants, can predispose the body to cancer. Antioxidants can also help support the body’s immune system, reducing the occurrence of conditions and diseases associated with a weakened immune system. It should be noted that tomato skin also contains powerful antioxidants.

Tomatoes contain other beneficial nutrients, such as beta-carotene and lutein, in addition to vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Tomatoes are also rich in potassium. Also, the nutrients in tomatoes become more powerful or efficient when combined with certain other foods. An Ohio State University study found that consuming tomatoes with healthy fats, such as olive oil or avocado, enhances the body’s ability to absorb antioxidants 2-15 times. A study published in Cancer Research observed more positive effects in treating prostate tumors in rats when tomatoes were combined with broccoli. No allergies or adverse effects have been definitively associated with tomatoes.

Enjoying tomatoes

The healthiest way to enjoy tomatoes is to grow them in a garden or buy locally grown, organically grown tomatoes at a farmers market or health food store. When this is not possible, canned tomatoes are an acceptable alternative. One medium tomato, one cup of tomato juice, or soup is one serving of the recommended daily vegetable intake. For the added benefits of combining tomatoes with other nutrient-dense foods, try adding some broccoli flowers to tomato soup. Add tomatoes and broccoli florets to a salad. Reduce the amount of cheese on a pizza and drizzle with olive oil for a rich flavor. Chop the avocado in your favorite sauce or chop the tomato in your favorite guacamole. Regardless of how you enjoy the health benefits of tomatoes, you will be fueling your system and tasting one of life’s culinary delights.

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