According to botanical references, the tomato is a berry since it develops from a single ovary. Originally it was named after the family it was a member of, Solanaceae, also referred to as “solenoid” and at times as “nightshade”. However the original botanical name has been replaced with Lycopersicon esculentum.
Regardless of the botanical name, people all over the world have grown to love this very wholesome fruit. The French call it “pomme d’amour” meaning “love apple”, as they believed tomatoes to hold aphrodisiacal properties while the Italians know it as “pomodoro” or “golden apple”, most probably because the first varieties to reach the country were yellow. The tomato has become a part of popular culture around the world. Japanese have named a bank after it, and American’s have used the phrase “a ripe tomato” as slang for an attractive women.
A universal occupation practiced around the globe involves tomato throwing. The ritual started in rural areas and was adapted by theater goers to show disappointment back in the mid-nineteenth century. More recently politicians have become the recipients of tomato throwers. In the late 1940s, tomato throwing was organized into a proper event in the Mediterranean town of Bunyol, near Valencia, Spain. The Tomatina festival is held in August, on the last Wednesday and has been officially sponsored since 1979. Over thirty thousand people just bombard each other with tomatoes for an hour. The Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival is a little more sophisticated, in that residents participate in tomato contests and consume goodies made with tomatoes.
History of Tomatoes
It is believed that tomatoes originated in the areas of Columbia, Chili, Ecuador, and the western part of Bolivia. The Galapagos Islands situated off the coast of Ecuador are also thought to be a part of tomatoes’ native habitat. The original varieties are thought to have resembled the small cherry tomato. Cultivation of tomatoes was most probably done by the Aztec civilization in Mexico, and most likely in the form of a yellow fruit. It is thought that the word “tomato” may have come from Nahautl (Aztecan) word “tomatl” which translates to “the swelling fruit.”
The Spanish explorers and colonizers carried the seeds from Mexico in the 1500s and introduced them to populations of Europe. While the use of the fruit spread in the area at this time, tomatoes did not gain much popularity as they were considered not fit for eating. This was most probably due to the status of the tomato plant being a nightshade plant and being potentially poisonous. At the time, tomatoes did belong to the Solanaceae family, just like potatoes, hot peppers, cayenne, paprika, eggplant and pimentos. Additionally tomatoes contain alkaloids, materials that in the smallest of doses can cause harmful reactions in people with sensitivities, but alkaloids are tolerated by most people around the world.
It was the French botanist Tournefort who offered the Latin botanical name, Lycopersicon esculentum for the tomato. It translates to “wolfpeach”; peach to denote its round and luscious appearance, and wolf from its erroneous label of being poisonous. Actually the botanist, again by mistake, took the tomato to be Galen’s wolfpeach of the 3rd century writings in which poison packed in food was used to destroy wild wolves.
Today 130 million tons of tomatoes are enjoyed the world over. China is the largest tomato producing Country followed by U.S, Turkey, Italy and India.
Benefits of the Tomatoes
Health benefits of tomatoes have been known for quite some time now. More recently their benefits have only been further clarified with scientific research. Tomatoes contain large quantities of lycopene, an antioxidant known for hunting out cancer causing free radicals. Unlike most nutrients which do not survive the heat during processing, lycopene benefits can even be obtained from processed products like ketchup. Lycopene protects the body against prostate, cervical, stomach, rectum, pharynx, esophageal cancers as well as breast and mouth cancers. Another well known antioxidant protecting the body from free radical and found in tomatoes in ample quantity is vitamin C. According to the November 2010 issue of “American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine” the lycopene in tomatoes shields bones from damage leading to low bone mass. The substantial amounts of vitamin K and calcium in tomatoes work in conjunction with lycopene to ward off osteoporosis.
The “Singapore Medical Journal” in May 2007 reported that the antioxidants found in tomatoes are particularly good at preventing damage to arteries of the heart. Consuming tomatoes lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides in the blood thus preventing their deposits and build-up in arteries leading to cardiovascular diseases. It is further stated that cooking tomatoes only helps to release more of these antioxidants.
Eating tomatoes can help to reduce the effects of cigarette smoke. Coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid are two components found in tomatoes which fight nitrosamines produced by the body and are the foremost carcinogens in cigarettes. The high levels of vitamin A in tomatoes help cut down on the effects of carcinogens and offers protection against lung cancer. Additionally, vitamin A helps in preventing night-blindness, macular degeneration and improves vision.
The fibre in tomatoes helps to maintain the health of the digestive system by preventing constipation and diarrhea. The fibre content stimulates the intestine’s peristaltic motion keeping the digestive system functioning smoothly. It removes the toxins in the body and prevents jaundice.
The high levels of potassium in tomatoes help prevent hypertension by reducing the tension in blood vessels and increase circulation thus reducing the stress on the heart.
Lastly, regular use of tomatoes dissolves gallstones and reduces urinary tract infections. The high water content in tomatoes stimulates urination, and rids the body of toxins including excess uric acid, and salts. Topical application of tomatoes cuts down on the effects of sunburns and eating them protects the skin from erythema caused by UV absorption.
Nutritional Value of Tomatoes
Tomatoes are loaded with nutrients and therefore provide many health benefits. They contain very high amounts of vitamins A, C and K and high amounts of folate, thiamine and vitamin B6. In the mineral department, tomatoes contain significant amounts of potassium, manganese, phosphorous, magnesium and copper. All this is topped off with protein and dietary fibre.
Tomatoes are off the charts when it comes to the phytonutrients they contain. They are loaded with Flavonones, Flavonols, Hydroxycinnamic acids, Carotenoids, Glycosides, and Fatty acid derivatives.
Uses of Tomato
Tomatoes can be used in and endless variety of ways, only limited by one’s imagination. You can roast, stew, sauté, poach, or pickle tomatoes. Of course, no one can forget their use in pizza or salsa. Here are a few more serving ideas:
- Add them to bean and vegetable soup
- Add them to an Italian salad with onions, mozzarella cheese, olives and drizzled with lemon and olive oil.
- Puree them with cucumbers, bell peppers and scallions in a food processor. Add seasonings of choice and use in soups.
- Use slices in sandwiches
When you are over run with tomatoes there are a number of ways to preserve them for future use.
- To stew tomatoes remove the skin by placing them in boiling water for about 20 seconds, then placing them in ice water so they are easier to handle. Cut the tomatoes in wedges, and add butter, sliced onion, green pepper, some sugar, salt and pepper into a pot and cook over low heat for several hours. This can be used as a side dish or frozen in portions for use in soups.
- To make a great tomato “juice”, remove any spotted areas. Cut into quarters and simmer for half an hour or until tender. Then press through a food mill, or a strainer. Chill before serving.
- To make tomato paste, blend tomatoes in a food processor and cook over a medium heat until they are reduced by half. This may be used in any recipe that requires tomato paste and the extra can be frozen for future use.
Researchers at theNational Centre for Food Safety & Technology, Illinois Institute of Technology and ConAgra Foods, Inc., found that the lycopene in tomatoes, along with other protective properties like anti-thrombotic and anti-inflammatory functions, helped to lower the risks of certain cancers. They are also beneficial in other conditions like osteoporosis, UV induced skin damage, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive degradation.
In some recent studies, elevated plasma homocysteine levels have been shown to be a risk factor in conditions like atherosclerosis, cerebrovascular disease and peripheral vascular disease. Use of tomato extract was found to lower this threat.
In recent years it has been found that blood platelets play a role in the inflammatory process of atherogenesis. Inhibition of platelet function (aggregation or adhesion to endothelial cells) can help to prevent atherothrombosis, which is a leading cause of cardiovascular morbidity. While inhibition can be achieved with antiplatelet medications, use of tomatoes has also been found to be beneficial.