Despite the popularity of tomatoes, it was only 200 years ago that they were thought to be poisonous in the United States (U.S.) This is likely to be because the plant belongs to the toxic nightshade family.
Tomatoes are now the fourth most popular fresh-market vegetable behind potatoes, lettuce, and onions. This article will examine their powerful health benefits, nutritional content, ways to include more tomatoes in the diet, and the risks of tomato consumption.
Contents of this article:
- Including tomatoes in the diet can help protect against cancer, maintain healthy blood pressure, and reduce blood glucose in people with diabetes.
- Tomatoes contain key carotenoids such as lutein and lycopene. These can protect the eye against light-induced damage.
- Eat more tomatoes by adding them to wraps or sandwiches, sauces, or salsas. Alternatively, eat them cooked or stewed, as these preparation methods can boost the availability of key nutrients.
- Tomatoes are in the top ten fruits and vegetables for containing levels of pesticide residue. Wash tomatoes before eating.
Possible health benefits of tomatoes
Tomatoes have extremely high nutritional density.
Image credit: unique_capture, own work
Tomatoes are an intensely nutritious plant food.
The benefits of consuming different types of fruit and vegetable are impressive, and tomatoes are no different. As the proportion of plant foods in the diet increases, the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer decreases.
There are different types and sizes of tomato, and they can be prepared in different ways. These include cherry tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, raw tomatoes, soups, juices, and purees.
The health benefits can vary between types. For example, cherry tomatoes have higher beta-carotene content than regular tomatoes.
High fruit and vegetable intake is also linked to healthy skin and hair, increased energy, and lower weight. Increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables significantly decreases the risk of obesity and overall mortality.
Tomatoes also contain lycopene. Lycopene is a polyphenol, or plant compound, that has been linked with one type of prostate cancer prevention. It also gives tomatoes their characteristic red color.
Tomato products provide 80 percent of dietary lycopene consumed in the U.S.
A study of the Japanese population demonstrates that beta-carotene consumption may reduce the risk of colon cancer. Fiber intake from fruits and vegetables is associated with a lowered risk of colorectal cancer.
Diets rich in beta-carotene may play a protective role against prostate cancer.
Further human-based research is needed to explore the possible roles of lycopene and beta-carotene in preventing or treating cancer.
2) Blood pressure
Maintaining a low sodium intake helps to maintain healthful blood pressure. However, increasing potassium intake may be just as important due to its widening effects on the arteries.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), fewer than 2 percent of U.S. adults meet the recommended daily potassium intake of 4,700 milligrams (mg).
High potassium and low sodium intake are also associated with a 20 percent reduced risk of dying from all causes.
3) Heart health
The fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and choline content in tomatoes all support heart health.
An increase in potassium intake, along with a decrease in sodium intake, is the most important dietary change the average person can make to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.
Tomatoes also contain folate. This helps to balance homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an amino acid that results from protein breakdown. It is said to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The management of homocysteine levels by folate reduces one of the risk factors for heart disease.
Not only is high potassium intake also associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, but it is also known for protecting the muscles against deterioration, preserving bone mineral density, and reducing the production of kidney stones.
Studies have shown that people with type 1 diabetes who consume high-fiber diets have lower blood glucose levels, while people with type 2 diabetes may have improved blood sugar, lipids, and insulin levels. One cup of cherry tomatoes provides about 2 grams (g) of fiber.
The American Diabetes Association recommends consuming around 25 g of fiber per day for women and an estimated 38 g per day for men.
Eating foods that are high in water content and fiber, such as tomatoes, may help hydration and support normal bowel movements. Tomatoes are often described as a laxative fruit.
More research is needed to confirm the laxative qualities of tomatoes.
6) Eye health
Tomatoes can help protect the eyes from light damage.
Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, lutein, and beta-carotene. These are powerful antioxidants that have been shown to protect the eyes against light-induced damage, the development of cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) recently found that people with high dietary intake of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, both present in tomatoes, had a 35 percent reduction in the risk of neovascular AMD.
Collagen is an essential component of the skin, hair, nails, and connective tissue.
The production of collagen in the body is reliant on vitamin C. A deficiency of vitamin C can lead to scurvy. As vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, a low intake is associated with increased damage from sunlight, pollution, and smoke.
This can lead to wrinkles, sagging skin, blemishes, and other adverse health effects of the skin.
Adequate folate intake is essential before and during pregnancy to protect against neural tube defects in infants.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. It is available in supplements but can also be boosted through dietary measures.
While it is recommended that women who are pregnant take a folic acid supplement, tomatoes are a great source of naturally-occurring folate. This applies equally for women who may become pregnant in the near future.
Tomatoes are packed with nutrients.
One cup of chopped or sliced raw tomatoes contains:
- 32 calories (kcal)
- 170.14 g of water
- 1.58 g of protein
- 2.2 g of fiber
- 5.8 g of carbohydrate
- 0 g cholesterol
Tomatoes also have a wealth of vitamin and mineral content, including:
- 18 mg of calcium
- 427 mg of potassium
- 43 mg of phosphorus
- 24.7 mg of vitamin C
- 1499 international units (IU) of vitamin A
Tomatoes also contain a wide array of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, including:
- alpha-lipoic acid
- folic acid
The cooking of tomatoes appears to increase the availability of key nutrients, such as the carotenoids lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Stewed tomatoes provide more lutein and zeaxanthin than sun-dried tomatoes and raw cherry tomatoes.
Ways to include tomatoes in the diet
There are easy ways to include the nutritional value of tomatoes in any diet.
Be sure to store fresh tomatoes at room temperature and avoid refrigeration, as this causes tomatoes to lose their flavor.
Incorporate more tomatoes into the diet using the following tips:
- Dip grape or cherry tomatoes in hummus or plain yogurt dip and consume them as a side or a snack.
- Add sliced tomato to sandwiches and wraps.
- Add diced, low-sodium canned tomatoes to homemade or jarred marinara sauces when making pasta.
- Used canned, diced, or stewed tomatoes in soups.
- Eat a piece of toast with avocado and tomato slices.
- Make a quick salsa with diced tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, and freshly squeezed lime.
- Dice fresh tomatoes and add them to rice and beans, quesadillas, or tacos. Add them to omelets or scrambles for breakfast.
- Drizzle freshly sliced tomatoes and sliced mozzarella with balsamic vinegar, and top with chopped basil.
- Make a bruschetta as an appetizer.
Risks and cautions
Wash tomatoes before eating.
Including tomatoes in the diet has certain risks.
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) compiles a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue. These foods are known as the Dirty Dozen.
For 2017, tomatoes are number 10 and cherry tomatoes number 14 on the list. Though it has not been proven that eating organic foods has overall health benefits, the EWG suggests that people should buy organic tomatoes where possible.
Buying organic minimizes pesticide exposure, though this has not been definitively proven to prevent disease.
Remember to wash tomatoes before eating.
Beta-blockers, a type of medication most commonly prescribed for heart disease, can cause potassium levels to increase in the blood. High potassium foods such as tomatoes should be consumed in moderation when taking beta-blockers.
Consuming too much potassium can be harmful to people with impaired kidney function. Failure to remove excess potassium from the blood can be fatal.
The nutrients of one food type do not give a complete picture of how to achieve a healthful diet. It is better to eat a varied diet than to concentrate on individual foods.