Tomatoes are one of the easiest fruits to grow, making it a favorite among home gardeners and farmers alike. Just a few tomato plants can produce enough tomatoes to keep you satisfied from mid-summer all the way through early fall.
Are Tomatoes a Vegetable or Fruit?
In the 1890s the U.S. Supreme Court re-categorized tomatoes as a vegetable purely for tax reasons. The truth is tomatoes have always been considered a fruit, which is defined as an edible plant that possesses its seeds in the pulp of the fruit. For clarification purposes, a vegetable is technically defined as the stem, leaf, or root of an edible plant.
A Brief History of the Tomato
Tomatoes can be traced back to Aztec Peru, where the name tomato loosely translates to “a plump thing with a navel.” Tomatoes were first brought to Europe in the mid-1500s and were initially believed to be poisonous due to their relation to the belladonna, which is a deadly nightshade plant.
In the late 1700s tomatoes were nicknamed the “poison apple.” It was believed that the wealthy elite would become sick and die after eating them. It wasn’t the tomatoes that were to blame. Wealthy Europeans were eating the tomatoes off pewter plates, which were naturally high in lead. The acidic nature of the tomatoes readily absorbed the lead into the fruit, and, as a result, many aristocrats died from lead poisoning. Because little was known about lead poisoning at the time, the tomato gained a notorious reputation.
In the same vein, the legend of throwing rotten tomatoes often tells of disgruntled theater-goers at the Globe Theater in London—the same Globe that produced many Shakespearean plays. Patrons brought vats of rotten tomatoes to toss at performers who disappointed them.
However, according to this article from NPR, tomatoes being tossed at actors is merely legend. The first documented case of tomatoes being thrown on a performer occurred several centuries later, according to an 1883 New York Times article. According to the report, John Ritchie, a trapeze artist, was hit “square between the eyes and he fell to the stage floor just as several bad eggs dropped upon his head.”
While tomatoes are still used in protest in some cases, for the most part, they are relegated to our dinner plate. And lucky for us, tomatoes are one of the most versatile and delicious fruits available today.
Tomato nutrition starts with lycopene. Lycopene helps maintain prostate gland health and has been linked to cancer prevention in several studies.
Tomatoes are naturally low in sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of vitamin E, thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, phosphorus, copper, and magnesium. Rich in dietary fiber, tomatoes can help prevent constipation and diarrhea.
In fact, tomatoes are made up of about 95% water, and the remaining 5% is mostly fiber and carbohydrates. One medium tomato contains about 22 calories, perfect for those who want to keep nutrition high and calories low.
With over 10,000 varieties, it’s no wonder tomatoes have become a favorite ingredient in cuisines all over the world. Tomatoes come in a variety of sizes, from the marble-sized grape or cherry tomato to the huge and crunchy beefsteak tomato. They also differ in colors spanning the range of a rainbow! Tomatoes can vary in color from a deep red to orange, yellow, or green. There are even purple tomatoes and chocolate-colored tomatoes!
Two types of growing tomatoes are most common. Determinate tomatoes and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow in a bush that is about 2 or 3 feet high. Roma tomatoes are the most common version of determinate tomatoes, although many other heirloom and cherry varieties are also determinate. The flower buds of the tomatoes form at the ends of the leaves and then produce the fruit, ripen, and die. This all happens at once, unlike indeterminate tomatoes.
Indeterminate tomatoes are vining tomatoes that need a stalk or cage to support their branches. They will continue growing and fruiting until a frost kills them. They generally produce a more abundant crop over an extended period than the determinate variety. Indeterminate tomatoes include many beefsteak, heirloom, and cherry tomato varieties as well as several others.
Hot tip: if you’re into home gardening, consider mixing a variety of indeterminate and determinate tomatoes in your garden to help spread out the harvest season even longer. Indeterminate varieties tend to fruit a bit later in the season, while determinate ripen earlier.
Health Benefits of Tomatoes
There is some conflicting information about tomatoes being a source of inflammation. Most of this is unfounded. In fact, due in part to the high antioxidant level in tomatoes, they are known to be an anti-inflammatory. Research consistently shows that the phytonutrients in tomatoes, combined with active flavonoids, carotenoids, saponins, and fatty acids, can produce anti-inflammatory properties.
The lycopene in tomatoes is the big seller here. Lycopene is rich in carotenoids that have been shown to be potent preventatives for prostate cancer.
Several other forms of cancer, including lung, pancreatic, and breast cancers, have shown a different relationship contingent upon tomato intake. In fact, the carotenoid lycopene specifically has been shown to be the most effective carotenoid to prevent breast cancer.
Tomatoes and Heart Health
Tomatoes have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease time and again. The research to support this highlights two components. The first cites the antioxidant support of tomatoes in the body. The second relates to the maintenance and regulation of fats within the bloodstream.
The heart and bloodstream transport oxygen from the lungs and circulate it throughout the body into muscles and all the other internal organs. Antioxidants are required to keep this oxygen flowing smoothly and efficiently.
Lycopene is also believed to increase heart-health by lowering the risk of lipid peroxidation in the bloodstream. Lipid peroxidation is a process where oxidation damages fats within the cell walls or in the blood. Chronic or excessive lipid peroxidation can lead to health issues including atherosclerosis.
Tomatoes are fantastic at regulating fats in the blood and have been shown to improve fat absorption and decrease LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. In fact this heavy maintenance and regulation are of great interest, and studies of two lesser-known phytonutrients essential to tomato nutrition—esculeoside A and 9-oxo-octadecadienoic acid—may be beneficial to this fat regulation in our bloodstream.
Tomatoes are also believed to restrict platelet clumping. If gone unchecked, platelet clumping has the potential to lead to several health complications.
Tomatoes and Skin Health
Carotenoids such as beta-carotene are often associated with skin health. Miraculously, they can create a blanket of protection against UV light. As a result, in several animal studies, tomato intake has been linked to a reduced risk of certain types of skin cancer.
While no food is a substitute for a strong UV protectant sunscreen, there are preventative features of tomatoes that are worth considering if you’re spending a lot of time in the sun on a daily basis.
Eat More Tomatoes
Based on the evidence in many of these studies, including just one or two servings of tomatoes a week may be enough to help you on your way to preventing additional risk to specific health ailments.
Tomatoes can be eaten raw, chopped in a salad, or cooked in a spaghetti sauce. They’re used in everything from pizzas to Indian curries. They top our favorite BBQ hamburger and are the base for our favorite salsa. In fact, tomatoes may be one of the most accessible foods to include in your diet on a regular basis. Organic is best if you can find it as they are typically included in the EWG’s dirty dozen for high pesticide absorption.
Canned or boxed tomatoes are also often sold in an organic variety to keep you in tomatoes long past the traditional harvest season. However, a word of caution regarding cans. Within the scientific community, there seems to be some conflicting research as to whether or not the BPA that is leached into canned tomatoes is of concern. If you’re concerned about the risk, perhaps stick to the boxed kind or another non-leaching container.
If you’re not fond of the tomato texture or flavor, you can still get the benefits in supplement form. Our Veggie Shake is also loaded with many of the same antioxidants that are rich in tomatoes and can be tossed in your favorite smoothie or mixed with juice to provide you the remarkable benefits without the flavor.