Tomatoes are practically the national fruit (they are indeed a fruit and not a vegetable) of Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Italy. They are used in a wide range of dishes common to the Mediterranean diet, and may be part of what contributes to the diet’s well-deserved reputation for being healthy. Full of vitamins and antioxidants such as lycopene, eating tomatoes regularly is a healthy choice.
Part of the nightshade family of plants (which includes eggplant, bell peppers and potatoes), the first tomatoes were brought to Europe from Spanish explorers in Mexico in the early 16th century. The English and early American colonists considered it unfit for eating until the late 18th century, and the tomato’s health benefits were relatively unknown until the 20th century.
Lycopene’s Health Benefits
A carotenoid called lycopene is the substance responsible for giving the color to deep red fruits and vegetables. Just as other carotenoids, lycopene is an antioxidant that acts to destroy the free radicals that damage the body’s cells, however, it is superior to other carotenoids in maintaining the structure of our body’s cell membranes, making them more effective in letting nutrients into the cells, removing waste from the cells and preventing the invasion of pathogens, effectively reducing the likelihood of disease. Tomatoes are the premier source of lycopene of all the red fruits and vegetables, especially after they have been processed.
Different benefits to health from lycopene are being discovered all the time by researchers. It is a substance that has been understood for a long time to protect against cancer and heart disease, cancer of the prostate in particular. A Harvard study of 47,400 men found that those who ate foods that contained some amount of cooked tomatoes (such as tomato sauce) twice a week or more had a risk of developing prostate cancer that was 20 percent less than their non-tomato-eating peers.
In addition, during a recent conference sponsored by the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy that took place at Virginia Technical Institute, scientists reported that lycopene can help to protect against damaging UV rays from the sun that can lead to the development of skin cancer. Researchers explain that whereas sunscreens go to work on the outside of the body to protect skin from being damaged, lycopene works to protect skin from the inside. Only a single cup of tomatoes each day is needed to enjoy lycopene’s protective effects and reduce sun damage by as much as 35%.
After years of research, scientists believe they have finally discovered the mechanism by which lycopene interferes with cancer development: it keeps cancer cells from being able to connect to a blood supply. Lycopene appears to prevent cancer cells from linking to the endothelial cells necessary for the creation of the blood vessels it needs to be able to feed itself.
Lycopene’s usefulness in aiding in the prevention of osteoporosis is also impressive. Although our bones are in a constant process of being broken down and re-formed, with the assistance of lycopene, the rate at which bone is formed exceeds the rate of bone loss, reducing the risk of a fracture and osteoporosis.
How to Get the Most From Tomatoes
To be sure you receive the greatest benefit from the lycopene contained in tomatoes, be sure to eat them in a form where they have been cooked or processed: for instance, in sauce, canned, frozen, or as juice. Cooking helps to break down the tomato’s cell walls, which releases more lycopene than would be available if the tomato were eaten raw. Tomato products should also be eaten with some healthy fat, such as olive oil, as lycopene is a fat-soluble nutrient, so absorption improves in the presence of a little fat.
Tomatoes are high in another potent antioxidant, vitamin C, and contain niacin, folate and vitamin B6, all of which contribute to lowering the risk of heart disease. Drinking a glass of tomato juice every day can also reduce levels of a substance called TNF-alpha by as much as 34 percent. TNF-alpha is an inflammation-causing cytokine that has been linked to a number of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis.
Watermelon and pink grapefruit also contain some levels of lycopene, however, the amount in tomatoes exceeds these by more than ten times. So put more tomatoes on your plate and enjoy better health!