Health Properties of Tomatoes

Here are 10 reasons you should be eating more delicious, nutritious tomatoes.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

I live in California, where we seem to eat a lot of sandwiches, salads, and Mexican food. And my favorite cuisine to cook is Italian. In my house, if we aren't enjoying tomatoes on our sandwiches or in our salads or salsa, we're saucing up dinner with some marinara. And those high-flavor, garden-fresh grape and cherry tomatoes? We eat them plain, like cherries.

Eating lots of tomatoes, any way you can, is a great thing. This fruit that acts like a vegetable is loaded with health properties.

Here are 10 reasons why you should have tomatoes in your kitchen and pantry:

  1. Tomatoes contain all four major carotenoids: alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene. These carotenoids may have individual benefits, but also have synergy as a group (that is, they interact to provide health benefits).
  2. In particular, tomatoes contain awesome amounts of lycopene, thought to have the highest antioxidant activity of all the carotenoids.
  3. Tomatoes and broccoli have synergy that may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer. One study showed that prostate tumors grew much more slowly in rats that were fed both tomato and broccoli powder than in rats given lycopene as a supplement or fed just the broccoli or tomato powder alone.
  4. A diet rich in tomato-based products may help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a study from The University of Montreal. The researchers found that lycopene (provided mainly by tomatoes) was linked to a 31% reduction in pancreatic cancer risk between men with the highest and lowest intakes of this carotenoid.
  5. Tomatoes contain all three high-powered antioxidants: beta-carotene (which has vitamin A activity in the body), vitamin E, and vitamin C. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report, What We Eat in America, noted that a third or us get too little vitamin C and almost half get too little vitamin A.
  6. Tomatoes are rich in potassium, a mineral most of us don't get enough of. A cup of tomato juice contains 534 milligrams of potassium, and 1/2 cup of tomato sauce has 454 milligrams.
  7. When tomatoes are eaten along with healthier fats, like avocado or olive oil, the body's absorption of the carotenoid phytochemicals in tomatoes can increase by two to 15 times, according to a study from Ohio State University.
  8. Tomatoes are a big part of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet. Many Mediterranean dishes and recipes call for tomatoes or tomato paste or sauce. Some recent studies, including one from The University of Athens Medical School, have found that people who most closely follow the Mediterranean diet have lower death rates from heart disease and cancer. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, who followed more than 39,000 women for seven years, found that consumption of oil- and tomato-based products -- particularly tomato and pizza sauce -- was associated with cardiovascular benefits.
  9. When breastfeeding moms eat tomato products, it increases the concentration of lycopene in their breast milk. In this case, cooked is best. The researchers also found that eating tomato products like tomato sauce increased concentrations of lycopene in breast milk more than eating fresh tomatoes did.
  10. Tomato peels contribute a high concentration of the carotenoids found in tomatoes. The amount of carotenoids absorbed by human intestinal cells was much greater with tomato paste enriched with tomato peels compared to tomato paste without peels, according to a study from Marseille, France. The tomato skin also holds most of the flavonols (another family of phytochemicals that includes quercetin and kaempferol) as well. So to maximize the health properties of tomatoes, don't peel them if you can help it!

Terrific Tomato Recipes

The good news is that America already loves tomatoes. They're one of the top fresh vegetables eaten in this country, and are the most frequently consumed canned vegetable, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Here are two tomato recipes to help you start eating more of these nutritious fruits today.

Halfway Homemade Garlic & Onion Pasta Sauce

You start with a bottle or can of marinara sauce, and end with a chunky, homemade-style pasta sauce.

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 cup chopped sweet onion
1/2 cup chopped red, yellow or orange bell pepper
2 teaspoons minced garlic
A dash of black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
2 cups bottled or canned marinara sauce
1/4 cup red wine of choice, such as merlot (optional)

  • Add olive oil to a medium, nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add onion and bell pepper and saute until cooked (about 4 minutes).
  • Reduce heat to low. Stir in minced garlic and black pepper and cook about a minute more. Stir in fresh basil, marinara, and wine (if desired) and simmer until the sauce is good and hot (a minute or two more). Serve with cooked pasta, chicken, fish, etc.

Yield: 4 servings (about 3/4 cup to 1 cup each)

Per serving: 132 calories, 3 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 6 g fat, 0.9 g saturated fat, 3.8 g monounsaturated fat, 1.4 g polyunsaturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, about 500 mg sodium (depending on the marinara sauce used). Calories from fat: 41%.

Simple Tomato & Herb Salad

This dish is simple because it uses a bottled salad dressing. The rest of the chopping and slicing goes quickly. It's all about featuring the garden fresh or vine-ripened tomato in all of its glory.

2 1/2 pounds (about 6 medium) garden fresh or vine-ripened tomatoes
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion, separated into rings
2 shallots, sliced thin
6 tablespoons light or reduced fat Italian-style salad dressing (your choice)
1/3 cup minced mixed fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, and tarragon

  • Core tomatoes and cut them into 1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange tomato slices in a deep serving dish (a 9x11-inch dish works well), and scatter onion and shallots over them.
  • Drizzle the bottled salad dressing evenly over the salad. Cover the dish and chill for 20-30 minutes.
  • Sprinkle herb mixture over the top and serve.

Yield: 6 servings.

Per serving: 72 calories, 2 g protein, 12 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat, 0.6 g saturated fat, 1 g monounsaturated fat, 1 g polyunsaturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2.5 g fiber, 243 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 35%.

Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2007 Elaine Magee

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

Published on August 03, 2007.

SOURCES: Adams, K., et al, Cancer Research Jan. 15, 2007, vol 67; pp 836-843. Nkondjock A. et al, Journal of Nutrition, March 2005, Volume 135; pp 592-597. Moshfegh, A., et al., What We Eat in America, NHANES 2001-2002: Usual Nutrient Intakes From Food Compared to Dietary Reference Intakes, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, 2005. ESHA Research Food Processor II, Nutritional Analysis Software. Unlu, NZ, et al., Journal of Nutrition, March 2005;135 (3); pp. 431-6. Trichopoulou, A., et al. The New England Journal of Medicine, June 26, 2003; 348: 26; pp 2599-2608. O'Kennedy, N., et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Sept. 2006; 84: 3; pp 570-579. Alien, C.M., et al., Journal of the American Dietetic Association, September 2002; 102: 9, pp 1257-1262. Liu, S., et al., Journal of Nutrition, July 2003; 133: pp 2336-2341. Reboul, E., et al, Journal of Nutrition, April 2005; Vol. 135; pp 790-794. Stewart, A.J., et al., Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 2000; 48: 7; pp. 2663-2669. USDA Economic Research Service web site: "Factors Affecting Tomato Consumption in the United States."

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


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