Tomatoes are an integral part of the American diet. Be it soups and salads or sauces and juice; we use them in almost all the dishes. This nutritionally-dense superfood is not just sweet and delicious; it offers many health benefits as well. Read on to learn about the nutritional profile and the many health benefits of tomatoes.
Is tomato a vegetable or a fruit?
Technically, tomato is a fruit because it develops from a single fertilized ovary and contains seeds. However, in 1886, during a dispute with a tomato importer, the US Supreme Court ruled that tomato is a vegetable. The US Department of Agriculture also lists tomatoes and tomato products under the vegetable section.
Tomato (Solanum Lycopersicum) is the edible berry of the tomato plant, and it belongs to the nightshade family. Tomatoes are native to Central America and were cultivated by the Aztec centuries before Spanish explorers introduced them to the world. Although they are popular now, just 200 years ago, tomatoes were considered to be poisonous. Most varieties of tomatoes produce red fruit, though some others also produce yellow, pink, purple, orange, green, and white tomatoes.
The nutritional profile of tomatoes
Tomatoes are low in calorie content and fat but are rich sources of dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. One cup (180 grams) of chopped, sliced tomatoes contains (1) –
- Calories – 32.4
- Water – 170 g
- Protein – 1.58 grams
- Carbohydrates – 5.8 grams
- Cholesterol – 0
- Fiber – 2.2 grams
- Calcium – 18 mg
- Potassium – 427 mg
- Phosphorus – 43 mg
- Vitamin C – 24.7 mg
- Vitamin A – 1499 IU
Tomatoes also have all four major carotenoids – alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene. The skin of the tomato contains the highest concentration of the carotenoids. The skin of the tomato also contains most of the flavonols (quercetin and kaempferol). So eat the tomatoes with their skin to retain their nutrients. Cooking also helps to increase the availability of carotenoids like lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin in tomatoes.
Health benefits of tomatoes
1. Prevent cancer
Many studies have found a link between lycopene and lower incidence of prostate, ovarian, lung, and stomach cancers (2). This is the compound that gives the tomatoes their red color. Tomatoes are also excellent sources of vitamin A, C, and E, which are known to get rid of cancer-causing free radicals. According to a 2016 study from Texas, a high intake of beta-carotene can prevent tumor development in prostate cancer (3). A study from Japan also showed that beta-carotene could reduce the risk of colorectal cancer (4).
2. Protect heart health
Lycopene and potassium, the two key nutrients in tomatoes, have a significant impact on heart health. Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, lowers LDL cholesterol and keeps blood from clotting, which reduces the risk of stroke. According to a 2016 study from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, higher blood levels of lycopene is linked to lower levels of mortality in people with metabolic syndrome (5).
Potassium helps by lowering blood pressure and relaxing the wall of the blood vessels. Tomatoes also contain folate, which helps to balance homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an amino acid that can increase the risk of heart attack and strokes. According to a study, eating tomatoes and tomato products is more effective in improving heart health than taking lycopene supplements (6).
3. Help with diabetes management
Tomatoes are a great food to add to your diabetes-friendly diet as they are low in calories. They are also non-starchy and have a low glycemic index. Any food with a glycemic score of lower than 55 is excellent for diabetes.
During a 2007 study, when people with diabetes supplemented their diet with cooked tomatoes for 30 days, they showed an improvement in antioxidant enzyme levels and decreased lipid peroxidation rate. These results suggest that tomato lycopene may serve as the best method of preventing oxidative stress in people with diabetes (7).
4. Improve vision
Adding tomatoes to your diet can boost the intake of nutrients that can benefit your eyes (8). Tomatoes are a rich source of vitamin A, which plays a vital role in the light cycle. One cup of sliced tomatoes contains 499 IU of vitamin A. Low levels of vitamin A can negatively affect your eyesight.
Tomatoes are also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, which are known to prevent eye diseases and lower the risk of macular degeneration. Lycopene also helps reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration. Tomatoes also contain vitamin C and copper, which are beneficial for the eyes.
Tomatoes are an excellent source of prebiotic fiber, which nourishes beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium bfidum. Even when your diet is less than optimal, tomatoes can help improve the gut balance. During one study, when rats with diet-induced non-alcoholic fatty liver disease were given tomato juice for five weeks, it increased their Lactobacillus numbers, suggesting improvement in the metabolic pattern (9).
Another study from Spain also showed that tomatoes boost probiotic activity in the gut and improve the microbiome (10).
6. Improve skin health
The lycopene content in the skin helps eliminate skin-aging free radicals caused by ultraviolet rays. Lycopene may also help reduce the risk of skin cancer. During one study, hairless mice were fed either tangerine or red tomato powder for 35 weeks. They were exposed to UVB light three times a week. The control group ate the same diet but were not exposed to the UVB light. The results showed that the mice that were fed tomato powder had fewer incidences of the tumor than the control group (11).
Tomatoes also contain vitamin C, which plays a vital role in the growth of new connective tissues, which promote wound healing. Tomatoes also contain several anti-inflammatory compounds like lycopene, beta-carotene, lutein, vitamin A and Vitamin C, which help ease pain associated with skin irritation and sunburn.
According to a 2015 study, tomato juice is beneficial for middle-aged women with menopausal symptoms. During the investigation, menopausal women drank 200 ml of unsalted tomato juice twice daily for eight weeks. The results showed that tomato juice eased menopausal symptoms like anxiety, lowered serum triglyceride levels, and increased resting energy expenditure (12). Tomatoes contain vitamin B6, which is essential for maintaining estrogen-progesterone balance. The anti-oxidative effect of lycopene also helps to ease hot flushes and night sweats.
Best ways to enjoy tomatoes
Tomatoes that ripen on the vine are much healthier and tastier than those that are picked when they are still green. Vine-ripened tomatoes have more vitamin C and beta-carotene than those that are ripened with ethylene. To get the maximum health benefits from tomatoes, try to get a nice mix of cooked tomatoes (paste, sauce, curries) and raw ones in the form of juice, salads, and sandwiches.
- You can add tomatoes to omelets and salads.
- Slice tomatoes and drizzle them with balsamic vinegar and add fresh basil, sea salt, and pepper.
- Add sundried tomatoes to fresh greens or steamed vegetables.
- Add tomato sauce to spaghetti or beans.
- Use tomato paste in veggie chili or mix it into hummus.
Always buy fresh and organic tomatoes. Chemical pesticides can counteract many of the benefits of plants.
Side effects of tomatoes
Though tomatoes provide many health benefits, eating them in excess can also cause some side effects.
Tomatoes are susceptible to salmonella contamination, which can lead to diarrhea.
2. Kidney problems
People with kidney problems should limit their intake of tomatoes as they are rich in potassium. When your kidneys are not functioning correctly, they are unable to remove the excess amounts of potassium in the body.
3. Acid reflux
Tomatoes are acidic and might cause acid reflux and heartburn in people that are prone to it.
Tomatoes are rich in a carotenoid pigment called lycopene. When a large amount of lycopene is consumed, it can lead to skin discoloration.
5. Allergic reaction
Some people can develop an allergy to tomatoes. People who are allergic to grass pollen are more likely to be allergic to tomatoes. During this allergy, our immune system reacts to fruit protein that is similar to pollen. The symptoms include itching and swelling in the mouth and throat.
Tomato is the edible berry of the tomato plant, and it belongs to the nightshade family. They are low in calorie content and fat but are rich sources of dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Tomatoes also have all four major carotenoids – alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene.
The high-nutrient content of tomatoes has been linked to a variety of health benefits. Tomatoes protect heart health; they improve vision and boost digestive health. They also help in diabetes management, lower the symptoms of menopause, and reduce the risk of cancer.
You can enjoy tomato benefits by adding them to your daily diet in cooked or raw form. The skin of the tomato contains the highest concentration of the carotenoids and flavonols, so it is healthier to retain the skin of the tomatoes when you cook them. Cooking also helps to increase the availability of carotenoids like lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin in tomatoes. Though tomatoes are generally safe to eat, some people may develop an allergic reaction. Excessive consumption can also lead to diarrhea, acid reflux, and lycopenodermia.