Health food of the month - Tomatoes December 2010
HEALTH FOOD OF THE MONTH - Tomatoes
Tomatoes, the dramatic health food that was once thought poisonous!
The media this month has reported new research that indicated tomato juice can have a far more radical effect on various cancers than previously thought.
But even before this new research, most of us know that tomatoes are good for us. They play a key role in the healthy “Mediterranean” diet and cooking tomatoes can even increase their health benefits.
Enthusiasm for tomatoes wasn’t always so high. They belong to the deadly nightshade family and in the past people thought they could be poisonous! They originated from South America and didn’t really reach the UK until the mid 16th century. There was early caution about tomatoes – the raw fruit does actually have low levels of tornatine (a toxic glycoalkaloid) but this is not dangerous.
While we mention the word fruit, it might be worthwhile explaining why tomatoes come under this category and is not considered a vegetable. Proper fruits are developed from the ovary in the base of the flower and contain the seeds of the plant - blueberries, raspberries and oranges, for example, and tomatoes. Some plants have a soft part which supports the seeds and is also called a fruit, although it is not developed from the ovary, such as a strawberry.
Whatever its definition, there is no doubt that today we know that tomatoes contain large levels of important nutrients. They contain high amounts of vitamin C plus vitamin A, potassium and iron. Even better, tomatoes contain all four major carotenoids; alpha and beta carotene, lutein and most exciting of all, lycopene. This is found in the red pigment contained in tomatoes and is the compound that has attracted so much excitement in recent years. Lycopene is thought to have twice the anti-oxidizing powers of that other well-known antioxidant betacarotene and is thought to act as a strong neutralizer of the free radicals in our body that can cause so much damage to our cells. Studies from Harvard researchers have shown that men who ate ten to twelve servings of tomatoes every week cut their risk of developing prostate cancer by an amazing 45%. Tomatoes are also said to help in a number of other cancers including colon, stomach, lung, breast and endometrial cancer.
It is not just because of the lycopene. Tomatoes also contain coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid which are thought to block the effects of nitrosamines, compounds that are found naturally in our body but which are also the strongest carcinogen in tobacco smoke. Blocking these nitrosamines can significantly reduce the likelihood of lung cancer.
Tomatoes are great because they are so easy to eat and even better, they do not lose their health benefits when cooked. So tomato juice or tomato sauces are just as good as raw tomatoes. Interestingly, when tomatoes are eaten with other healthier fats such as avocado or olive oil, the body’s absorption of the carotenoid phytochemicals can increase by two to fifteen times. No wonder the Mediterranean diet is said to be good for us.
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