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Totally Healthy Tomatoes

14 February 2009 1,482 views No Comment

Botanically they are classed as succulent fruits or berries, containing a large number of seeds, but we buy them as vegetables, with savoury overtones – although they taste fantastic with sugar!

Some History

Their ancestral home is the west coast of South America, where cherry tomatoes still grow wild. The Aztecs cultivated them along with chilli peppers and they travelled together to Europe arriving in Seville early in the 16th century. Culinary acceptance was slow due to their association with other more dubious members of the Solanaceae family – including Atropa belladonna (Deadly Nightshade).

What the Spanish did with their tomatoes until 1692 remains a mystery, but that year saw the publication of Antonio Latini’s book Lo scalco alla moderna which included a recipe for “Tomato Sauce, Spanish Style” with chopped parsley, garlic, onion, salt, pepper and oil (1). Meanwhile, the Italians focussed on the production of a superior tomato paste la salsa secca, eventually providing the inspiration for bottled ketchup manufactured by Henry Heinz (USA) in 1876 – and the nation’s favourite condiment ever since.

In the UK, it took until the end of the 19th century for tomatoes to enter our cuisine from the market place. Early specimens were flatter in shape, deeply grooved and indented from the stem, giving them a star-like appearance compared to the smoother varieties seen today. They were called “Love Apples” a reference to their reputation as aphrodisiacs, but whatever the truth of the matter, we fell in love with them and they became a global favourite, second only to the potato.

Talented Tomatoes

Thousands of recipes now use tomatoes in their ingredients, such is the versatility of this ancient fruit. Sitting on the borderline of sweet and savoury allows it to mix freely with basil, garlic, peppers, onion, egg and meat dishes, but the science of food technology has taken things a step further.

The intense colour of tomatoes is due to a combination of natural pigments called carotenoids, which all have powerful antioxidant properties. One type, beta-carotene is converted by our bodies to vitamin A, while another, lycopene is implicated in the prevention of prostate cancer (2). It is possible to concentrate these pigments and market them as novel food ingredients and food colouring. Food technologists have persuaded a microscopic fungus Blakeslea trispora to produce large amounts of lycopene as a natural by-product of its metabolism (3). While chemically identical, this synthetic product has never seen the inside of a tomato, so read those food labels carefully if you prefer the real thing.

Benefits and Risks

  • The natural acidity of a high tomato diet would give you stomach ache which would limit your intake long before the carotenoid pigments started to show up in the fat cells below your skin (hypercarotenodermia). The potassium content of a large tomato is approx 250mg, which is only 7% of your daily requirement (3500mg) but don’t take this on as a challenge (4).
  • On the contrary, a little goes a long way, especially if you eat the processed variety , whether canned, pureed, sundried, or just as a dollop of sauce. Lycopene is released in larger quantities during processing and cooking, especially in the presence of oil – which aids intestinal absorption.
  • In addition, there is 18mg of vitamin C in a large tomato which is roughly 45% of your daily requirement (4). Throw in a dash of fibre with a little sugar and you have the ideal low fat snack.
  • Just one word of caution – we love our tomatoes, but is this because we enjoy what’s sitting alongside them on our plates? Americans now consume an average of 100 acres of pizza per day, but it might have been a different story without the culinary skills of the Medieval Spanish and Italian chefs who elevated this humble fruit from obscurity to fast-food status in under 200 years.
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