Tomato Health Benefits
Tomatoes is one of the most popular fruits in the world and the 4th most consumed vegetables in the US, after potatoes, lettuce and onion. Although technically a tomato is a fruit, as like all fruits it develops from the fertilized ovary of the plant, most people are habituated to think about it as a vegetable.
Also, it’s more commonly used in vegetable preparations and also is similar to foods in the vegetable group in terms of nutrient and calorie content.
Tomatoes come in a range of shapes and plethora of colors.
When it comes to shapes, the most common are the “classic” or “globe” tomatoes that are round in shape. They are 2-3 inches in diameter and sometimes look rather flattened than perfectly round. This variety again has a number of other varieties like beefsteak tomatoes (round and large), cherry tomatoes (round and small – about an inch in diameter) and cocktail tomatoes (round and medium-sized).
Another shape is oval and somewhat elongated and these are known as plum tomatoes.
Tomatoes similar to cherry tomatoes in size but oval in shape are called grape tomatoes. These are considered to be smaller variations of oval/plum tomatoes.
When it comes to colors, tomatoes come in a rainbow of colors including vivid red, orange/tangerine, yellow, purple, black, brown, pink and green.
Two other categories in which tomatoes are classified are “Determinate” and “Indeterminate”. Determinate tomatoes grow on a bush-like plant and produce tomatoes at a particular time of year, whereas indeterminate tomatoes grow on vine, and produce tomatoes all through the year.
Whichever is the variety, all tomatoes belong to the Solanaceae family (also known as the nightshade family).
Based on this, firstly scientists gave tomatoes the scientific name Solanum lycopersicum. But later this name was changed to Lycopersicon esculentum. Still later, a third name emerged and it’s Lycopersicon lycopersicum. However, the former two are used more commonly.
While tomatoes are more commonly considered as a part of Mediterranean cuisine, they are actually native to the western parts of South America.
Health Benefits of Tomatoes
Amazing Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Benefits
Research on tomatoes has consistently shown that tomato consumption reduces the risk of unwanted inflammation and also reduces the risk of oxidative stress. These findings of the research are not surprising because tomatoes are so full of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
Although carotenoids are considered to be the main nutrient in tomatoes in this regard, tomatoes in fact contain a very wide range of health-giving phytonutrients, including flavonoids, saponins, carotenoids and fatty acid derivatives.
Following are some of the phytonutrients in tomatoes that are most extensively studied:
- Carotenoids: Lycopene, Lutein, Beta-carotene, Zeaxanthin, Neurosporine, Photoflune
- Flavonols: Quercetin, Kaempferol, Rutin, Flavonones, Chalconaringenin, Nringenin
- Flavones: Fisetin
- Fatty Acid Derivatives: 9-oxo-octadecadienoic acid
- Saponins: Esculeoside A
- Hydroxycinnamic Acids: Coumaric acid, Ferulic acid, Caffeic acid
An unusual class of compounds occurring in tomatoes, though not considered phytonutrients typically, may also offer health benefits. These are known as alkaloids (they are also sometimes known as solanaceous alkaloids, when they are in tomatoes, because they occur virtually exclusively in plants belonging to Solanaceae family).
Tomatidine and tomatine are the two tomato alkaloids, and they are not considered as phytonutrients because their consumption in large amounts or by those having a special sensitivity to them can be risky. The distribution of these alkaloids within the tomato plant should also be considered. Their highest concentration is in the leaves and stems and not much in the fruit that is commonly consumed.
Besides the phytonutrient antioxidants mentioned above, tomatoes also offer a significant amount of conventional antioxidants, such as outstanding amounts of vitamin C, great amounts of vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids) and E, and manganese, and fair amounts of chromium and zinc.
The excellent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory profile of tomatoes offers its benefits to many of the body systems including musculoskeletal system, integumentary system (skin), renal system (kidneys), cardiovascular system and hepatic system (liver).
One of the most prominent health benefits of tomatoes is the cardiovascular benefits. Tomatoes benefit heart health in two ways – firstly with its antioxidant support and secondly with regulation of fats in blood.
Cardiovascular system needs antioxidant support the most among all body systems. Heart and blood do the job of circulating oxygen taken in through lungs around the body. This oxygen should be kept in check for which antioxidants are required in large quantities.
Although due to the high phytonutrient concentration in tomatoes, the conventional vitamin antioxidants like vitamin C and E are overlooked, they too provide important antioxidant support to cardiovascular system and play an important role in heart health.
However, the carotenoid lycopene has grabbed the most attention as a leading antioxidant and heart-healthy nutrient. Lycopene has the quality of lowering the rate of lipid peroxidation in our blood, i.e. it reduces the damage caused by oxygen to fats circulating in the body.
If the damage is not much, it can be repaired. But if it’s chronic and/or too much, it can be dangerous to inflammatory and immune systems and can cause events leading to blocking of blood vessels (atherosclerosis) and other problems.
Other way tomatoes offer health benefits to heart is through regulation of fats in the bloodstream. Consuming tomatoes or tomato extracts, and taking supplements containing tomato phytonutrients (such as lycopene) all have been found to improve fat profile in the bloodstream.
Particularly, tomato consumption has been found to cause reduction in total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It’s also been found to cause reduction in accumulation of cholesterol molecules in macrophage cells (white blood cells that are summoned when there is excessive oxidative stress in the blood and their activity, including accumulation of cholesterol, is one of the causes of atherosclerosis). Several phytonutrients in tomatoes are possibly involved in the improvement of fats in blood.
Another interesting finding about tomatoes’ heart-healthy properties is regarding blood cells known as platelets. When platelets excessively clump together they can cause problems such as unwanted clotting and blockages. Prevention of such clumping is important for heart health. Tomatoes have got several phytonutrients that have been found to help prevention of such excessive clumping of platelets (this property is known as “anti-aggregatory” effect).
Reduction in the Risk of Cancer
Another prominent health benefit of tomatoes is the reduction in the risk of cancer. The most-researched cancer type in this regard is prostate cancer. Alpha-tomatine in tomatoes is a saponin phytonutrient and shows an ability to change the metabolic activity in the development of prostate cancer cells. It has also been found to induce programmed death of cells (apoptosis) in prostate cancer that have been fully formed. Studies on alpha-tomatine conducted on non-small cell lung cancer have also shown similar results.
Other types of cancer studied for the effects of tomatoes on them are breast cancer and pancreatic cancer. However, in case of breast cancer, the carotenoid lycopene has been more studied than tomatoes and lycopene (in supplement form) has been found to lower the risk of breast cancer.
Beneficial for Skin Health
Tomato and tomato products, particularly tomato paste, have been found to offer health benefits to skin after unprotected sun exposure. Tomato intake has shown to reduce skin redness following UV exposure from the sun. Also it has been found that tomato products like tomato paste lessen the impact of sunburn more effectively than purified tomato nutrients such as lycopene (in the form of supplements).
Carotenoids in tomatoes such as beta-carotene have long been found to be capable of getting deposited in skin cells and it’s well-known that they can protect skin from excessive UV light. Tomato intake has also been found to reduce the risk of some types of skin cancer in animal studies.
Tomatoes are loaded with beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein, all of which are powerful antioxidants that protect eyes against light-induced damage, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and development of cataract.
In the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), lutein and zeaxanthin in tomatoes were found to reduce the risk of neovascular AMD when they were consumed in high amounts.
Prevention of Constipation
Foods high in fiber and water content such as tomatoes may boost hydration and normal bowel movements. Tomatoes are usually considered as a laxative fruit. However, more research is needed to confirm this.
Health During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Sufficient folate consumption is necessary before and during pregnancy in order to protect against neural tube defects in fetuses. The synthetic form of folate is folic acid which is available as supplements but can also be consumed through diet. While pregnant women are prescribed folic acid supplements, tomatoes can act as an excellent source of natural form of folate. Women who are planning to become pregnant in the near future can also benefit from this.
If breastfeeding women eat tomatoes or tomato products, the concentration of lycopene in their breast milk increases.
In this case, tomato products increase the lycopene concentration more than fresh tomatoes.
Good for Cigarette Smokers
The chlorogenic acid and coumaric acid in tomatoes combat against nitrosamines, the main carcinogens in cigarettes. Also the high quantities of vitamin A in tomatoes have been found to decrease the effects of carcinogens. Lycopene in tomatoes is also helpful in the prevention of cancer.
Tomato Nutritional Profile
1 cup (180 grams) of raw, sliced tomatoes contains:
- Vitamin A: 74.97 mcg (8% DRI/DV)
- Thiamine (Vitamin B1): 0.07 mg (6% DRI/DV)
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): 0.03 mg (2% DRI/DV)
- Niacin (Vitamin B3): 1.07 mg (7% DRI/DV)
- Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5): 0.16 mg (3% DRI/DV)
- Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6): 0.14 mg (8% DRI/DV)
- Biotin (Vitamin B7): 7.20 mcg (24% DRI/DV)
- Folate (Vitamin B9): 27 mcg (7% DRI/DV)
- Vitamin C: 24.66 mg (33% DRI/DV)
- Vitamin E: 0.97 mg (6% DRI/DV)
- Vitamin K: 14.22 mcg (16% DRI/DV)
- Copper: 0.11 mg (12% DRI/DV)
- Molybdenum: 9 mcg (20% DRI/DV)
- Manganese: 0.21 mg (9% DRI/DV)
- Calcium: 18 mg (2% DRI/DV)
- Potassium: 426.60 mg (9% DRI/DV)
- Phosphorous: 43.20 mg (6% DRI/DV)
- Magnesium: 19.80 mg (5% DRI/DV)
- Chromium: 1.26 mcg (4% DRI/DV)
- Zinc: 0.31 mg (3% DRI/DV)
- Iron: 0.49 mg (3% DRI/DV)
- Sodium: 9 mg (1% DRI/DV)
- Choline: 12.06 mg (3% DRI/DV)
- Protein: 1.58 grams (3 % DRI/DV)
- Carbohydrates: 7 grams (3% DRI/DV)
- Fat: 0.36 grams (0% DRI/DV)
- Fiber: 2.16 grams (8% DRI/DV)
- Calories: 32.40 (2% DRI/DV)
Tomato Risk Factors
Tomatoes are usually well tolerated and tomato allergy is quite rare.
However, those who are allergic to grass pollens are highly likely to be allergic to tomatoes. This condition is known as pollen-food allergy syndrome or oral-allergy syndrome. In this, a person’s immune system attacks vegetable and fruit proteins that resemble pollens, due to which allergic reactions such as scratchy throat, itching in mouth or swelling of throat or mouth can take place.
Those having latex allergy can also have cross-reactivity to tomatoes.
Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list of vegetables and fruits having the highest amounts of pesticide residue every year and tomatoes are included in this list. Although it has not been proven that consuming organic foods has overall health benefits, it has been suggested by the EWG to people that they should consume organic tomatoes as far as possible to reduce pesticide exposure.
Since beta-blockers that are prescribed to heart patients can increase potassium levels in blood, high potassium foods like tomatoes should be eaten in moderation by those who are taking beta-blockers. Similarly high potassium intake can be dangerous to those with impaired kidney function because their kidneys are incapable of removing excess potassium from the blood which can be fatal.
For Short: Tomatoes are essential part of Mediterranean cuisine, regardless if the are consumed processed or raw.
Tomatoes are commonly eaten raw in salads or as simple side dish and as such provides fibers, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and some carbs.
Even people on low-calorie and/or low-carb diets should include tomatoes in their daily routine and enjoy these tasty fruits. Yes, fruits! :)