Biting into a ripe, juicy tomato is one of the true treats of summer. It’s also one of the best things you can do for your body. Its rich red color comes from lycopene, a powerful antioxidant plentiful in just a few foods. Plus, a large tomato offers decent amounts of vitamin C and potassium, which lowers blood pressure.
Locally grown tomatoes may be your best bet for health and taste. “In an attempt to create firm, round, pest-resistant fruit, big agriculture accidentally bred out the flavor gene,” says Amanda Bontempo, R.D., an oncology dietitian at NYU Langone Health. Plus, grocery store varieties are generally picked early so that they’re not overripe by the time they reach the store. “Sun-ripened tomatoes typically have more flavor and more lycopene,” says Alisa Scherban, R.D., a dietitian with Yale Health in New Haven, Conn.
The Benefits of Lycopene
Like all antioxidants, lycopene squelches free radicals, which play a role in cancer, heart disease, and other diseases associated with aging, Bontempo says. A 2020 study published in the journal Cancer Causes & Control found that men who ate tomatoes almost every day had a 28 percent lower risk of prostate cancer than men who didn’t. Lycopene may also protect the skin from the sun damage that can cause skin cancer, and some research suggests that it helps women maintain bone mass as they age.
You get more lycopene from tomatoes and absorb more of it when they’re cooked. For instance, a large fresh tomato has about 5 mg of lycopene, compared with about 17 mg in ½ cup of tomato sauce. “Lycopene is trapped in the cell wall of the vegetable,” Scherban says. Cooking breaks down the walls and releases the lycopene. There’s no recommended intake for lycopene, but some evidence suggests as little as 7 mg per day is beneficial.
To enhance absorption from fresh tomatoes, purée or crush them, which also breaks down cell walls (think salsa, gazpacho, or fresh sauce). Another tip: Break out the olive oil, avocado, or cheese. Carotenoids like lycopene are fat-soluble, so they’re better absorbed when you eat them with some fat.
Other colors have benefits, too. For example, orange tomatoes pack beta carotene, which converts to vitamin A in your body, and yellow tomatoes have lutein, which helps prevent the age-related eye disease macular degeneration.
People with arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis, often think they should avoid tomatoes and other nightshade vegetables (eggplant, potatoes, and peppers, for example) because they can cause inflammation that leads to joint pain. The notion may stem from the fact that this plant family contains a compound called solanine, which in large amounts can be toxic. But the amount found in nightshade vegetables is extremely low. There’s no research that shows that nightshades cause inflammation. In fact, it’s just the opposite. “The phytochemicals in tomatoes have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect,” Bontempo says.
Just Picked! Tasty Dishes to Try.
You can’t go wrong by including in-season tomatoes in a salad or serving slices with fresh mozzarella. But there are many more nutritious ways to take advantage of summer’s bounty.
Whip up gazpacho. Chop tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, and cilantro, and pulse in a food processor, then combine with olive oil and a splash of vinegar before chilling. For a fresh twist, add watermelon (which is another rich source of lycopene), Bontempo says.
Try ratatouille. Drizzle olive oil over chunks of tomatoes and other veggies (zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, onions, etc.), add herbs, then roast.
Toss with some white beans. Bontempo uses gigante beans and seasons with olive oil and chopped thyme. “I also love tomatoes roasted in olive oil with sage and garlic,” she says. “I never met a tomato that I didn’t like.”
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the September 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.
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