In these glorious tomato growing months from June to September, the best tasting tomatoes are those grown close to home. Some of the best tomatoes to grace my taste buds were “volunteers” that popped up in a pile of dirt behind my house a few years back. They were apparently the hardy relatives of a garden that was no more.
Before the 19th century, Europeans referred to tomatoes as “poisonous apples,” according to an informative article on this topic in a recent issue of Food and Nutrition. Diners in those days mistakenly blamed tomatoes for what actually was lead poisoning — caused when the mild acid in tomatoes leached lead from the pottery dishes from which they ate their meals.
Now we know that tomatoes are rich in health-promoting properties. They, in fact, play a big role in the recommended eating pattern we know as the Mediterranean diet.
And here’s a trivia question: Are tomatoes a vegetable or a fruit? Both are correct. By botanical definition, tomatoes are fruits — the seed-bearing parts of flowering plants. Since, 1893 however, tomatoes have been designated as vegetables by the U.S. government.
And nutritionally, tomatoes are indeed closer to vegetables than to fruit. They are low in calories (one cup of regular or cherry tomatoes has about 30 calories) and high in nutrients including potassium (important for blood pressure control) and vitamins A and C. Tomatoes are also rich in carotenoids — natural antioxidant substances such as beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene.
Lycopene is the pigment that give tomatoes their rich red color. And researchers have found many benefits from eating this compound. At the cellular level, lycopene appears to protect our body cells from the stresses of everyday living. Researchers are especially interested in the protective effects of lycopene and other carotenoids on the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases.
Raw or cooked? Both are great, say nutrition experts. Either way, if you eat tomatoes with a source of fat such as olive oil or avocado, you’ll absorb more of the fat-soluble lycopene. And believe it or not, lycopene from cooked or canned tomatoes is more available for absorption in our bodies.
Best way to maintain tomatoes’ fresh flavor? Store them at room temperature. Cold (less than 55 degrees F.) kills the flavor, say tomato experts. And here’s something I didn’t know. According to the Florida Tomato Committee, you should “always store your tomatoes stem end up. Leaving a tomato on its shoulders, even for a few days, is enough to bruise it.”
Of course the best part of tomatoes is eating them. Find some great recipes at Tomato Wellness and the California Tomato Growers. Better yet, pick one from your garden and pop it in your mouth.