What’s not to LYC? The Health Benefits of Tomatoes + Recipes

By: Connor Dawedeit

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The tomato, the fruit of the Solanum lycopersicum plant, is a widely versatile and delicious food. Originating in Central America and first eaten by the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples, the plant was first brought to Europe during the Columbian Exchange, where its fruit was regarded with suspicion, due to the fact that it resembled other plants in the family of nightshades, some of which are poisonous. Luckily, the tomato is not only safe to eat, but is in fact highly nutritious. Like all fruits, tomatoes are excellent sources of vitamin C, an essential micronutrient and antioxidant which contributes to the synthesis of collagen and promotes wound healing and connective tissue health, and is required for the synthesis of some neurotransmitters1. Many other micronutrients are present in high concentration in tomatoes, such as other vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, the biologically active compounds synthesized in plants for protection against their environment. One of these phytochemicals, lycopene, is found in many red fruits and vegetables, such as watermelon, albeit usually at smaller concentrations than in tomatoes.

Lycopene has many beneficial properties which make it a healthful component of one’s diet. It is a powerful antioxidant, which clears free radicals in the body at ten times the rate of vitamin E2. One study has shown that lycopene supplementation in postmenopausal women severely reduced oxidative stress in their bodies as well as decreased bone resorption markers, indicating that it may reduce the risk for osteoporosis3. Furthermore, studies have shown that lycopene intake reduces risk for some cancers. In an in vitro study, lycopene was observed to disrupt the process by which prostate cancer cells “link” with endothelial cells for sustenance from the blood4. With this process disrupted, the cancer cells are unable to grow and proliferate. In another study in which data from the Women’s Health Initiative was analyzed, lycopene intake was associated with a 39% lower risk for renal cancer5.

Interestingly, the process of cooking tomatoes increases the amount and bioavailability of lycopene in tomatoes, as well as other antioxidants. Tomatoes heated at about 190°F for half an hour had 164% more trans-lycopene and 35% more cis-lycopene in one experiment2. This effect may be due to the breaking down of cell walls in the tomato cells and freeing lycopene from the fruit’s tissues, thus increasing its bioavailability6. Unfortunately, heating does convert the vitamin C in tomatoes into biologically inactive molecules2, and so both cooked and raw tomatoes are healthful components of one’s diet.

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One of the easiest and most delicious ways to include cooked tomatoes in the diet is homemade tomato sauce. For anybody first learning how to cook, tomato sauce is an easy yet impressive recipe to learn and experiment with, and is made from very cheap ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 large carrot, finely diced
  • 3-5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Italian seasoning, or dried basil, thyme, and/or oregano
  • Red pepper flakes
  • 28 oz. can of tomatoes
  • Salt

Directions:

  1. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan, and add the diced onion. Sauté for about 5 minutes, then add the carrot and continue to cook for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, dried herbs, and red pepper flakes and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Finally, stir in the tomatoes and a pinch of salt and simmer the sauce for half an hour. Remember to keep tasting, and add more seasoning if needed. This recipe makes about four servings, and is great on pasta, zoodles (zucchini noodles; buy a spiralizer, it will change your life), or even tossed in with roasted vegetables or chicken. As an added benefit, your kitchen will smell amazing for about a day and a half.

Another great way to cook tomatoes is to stuff them and bake them in the oven. Tomatoes can be stuffed with cooked beef, chicken, or sausage, cooked rice or quinoa, and vegetables. The combination of ingredients can be different every time they are made, so learning this skill in the kitchen is almost like learning over a dozen! The following is a vegetarian example found at http://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/veggie-stuffed-tomatoes.

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 1/2 small carrot
  • 1/2 celery rib, sliced
  • 1/2 small onion, peeled
  • 1 small garlic clove, peeled
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon white wine or vegetable broth
  • 1/3 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 to 4 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

Directions:

  1. Slice the tops off of the tomatoes, scoop out the seeds and pulp (don’t discard), and dry the insides of the tomatoes with a paper towel. Finally chop (or run in a food processor) the carrot, celery, onion, and garlic. Add the tomato pulp to the food processor or stir the chopped vegetables into the pulp. Sauté the mixture in olive oil and add in the oregano. Add the wine or brother and reduce the liquid by one half. Allow the contents of the pan to cool off slightly, then stir in the bread crumbs, Parmesan, and basil. Stuff the tomatoes with the prepared stuffing and bake them for 15-20 minutes at 350°F.

References:

  1. Office of Dietary Supplements. (2016, February 11). Vitamin C: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/
  2. Cornell University. (2002, April 23). Cooking Tomatoes Boosts Disease-Fighting Power. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/04/020422073341.htm
  3. Mackinnon, E. S., Rao, A. V., Josse, A. G., & Rao, L. G. (2011, April). Supplementation with the antioxidant lycopene significantly decreases oxidative stress parameters and the bone resorption marker N-telopeptide of type I collagen in postmenopausal women. Osteoporosis International, 22(4): 1091-1101. doi: 10.1007/s00198-010-1308-0
  4. Freeman, B. B. & Reimers, K. (2010, November 19). Tomato Consumption and Health: Emerging Benefits. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 5(2): 182-191. doi: 10.1177/1559827610387488
  5. Wayne State University Division of Research. (2015, March 2). Lycopene may ward off kidney cancer in older women. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150302121502.htm
  6. Shi, J. & Le Maguer, M. (2000). Lycopene in tomatoes: chemical and physical properties affected by food processing. Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, 20(4): 293-334. doi 10.1080/07388550091144212
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