Tomato's Two Sides

Tuesday, 08 March 2011 09:49 AM EST

Tomatoes are the most popular non-starchy vegetable in America, and it’s easy to find them in salads, sauces, and pasta dishes, and on pizza. Eating more of them is a simple way to make your diet healthier, but as with most foods today, there are some potential hazards.

To be technically accurate, in botanical terms, the tomato is actually a fruit because it holds the seeds of a flowering plant. However, because it isn’t sweet like the fruits we’re accustomed to, we treat it as a vegetable that usually belongs in main courses rather than desserts. And in 1893, the Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes should be classified as a vegetable. (This became a legal issue because, at the time, imported fruits, unlike vegetables, were taxed, so importers were quite picky about classification of plant foods.)

Tomato Benefits

Lycopene is a key nutrient found in tomatoes, and it’s more absorbable when the vegetable is cooked, although that doesn’t mean that raw tomatoes should be shunned. Studies of tomatoes and lycopene in supplement form have found that benefits include lower risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, gum disease, male infertility, asthma, diabetes, macular degeneration, and cataracts, and lycopene may also protect against sunburn, although it certainly doesn’t replace sunscreen.

Here's a sampling of tomato-based foods and their lycopene content, according to a nutritional analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

• ½ cup tomato sauce contains 17.12 mg
• 1 cup soup contains 13.04 mg
• ½ cup vegetable juice cocktail contains 11.69 mg
• 2 Tbsp salsa contains 3.36 mg
• 1 Tbsp ketchup contains 2.51 mg

Most often, studies have found benefits in lycopene doses ranging from 4 to 8 mg, but up to 120 mg has been used safely in treatment of prostate cancer. However, tomatoes are a better source of lycopene than supplements.

One of many studies to make this point, in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, noted: “Although lycopene has been extensively investigated apart from the tomato, the preponderance of evidence suggests that consumption of whole tomatoes and tomato products should be preferentially recommended.”

Compared to lycopene pills, there is more research supporting benefits of whole tomatoes, and the vegetable contains additional nutrients, such as vitamin C and fiber. Also, tomatoes are a rich source of potassium, a key nutrient for lowering blood pressure. For example, eating 100 calories of tomatoes provides more than twice the potassium of the same calories from bananas or potatoes, other good sources of the mineral.

Sugar and Salt Hazards

On the dark side, tomato products can be loaded with sugar and salt. Ketchup accounts for one in 10 tomatoes consumed in America. By some estimates, there typically is 1 teaspoon of sugar in 1 tablespoon of ketchup. Low- or no-sugar versions are available, sweetened with sugar alternatives that may cause gas for some people.

Pizza and pasta sauces and juices can be major sources of salt, and sauces usually contain some sugar, although typically not as much as ketchup contains. To get the benefits without the hazards:

• Use ketchup sparingly, as a condiment rather than a side dish.
• When choosing tomato sauces, compare labels and look for ones that are low in salt and sugar. Some sauces are made without sugar, such as Aunt Mary Ann’s Sunday Marinara . Others are salt-free, such as Muir Glen Organic No Salt Added Tomato Sauce. Seasoning with salt after you taste the sauce will make it flavorful with less sodium.
• Look for low-sodium juices, such as R.W. Knudsen’s Very Veggie Low-Sodium.
• Buy flavorful fresh tomatoes and, as an alternative to salads, make an appetizer with generous amounts of tomato slices, fresh basil, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, a touch of salt, and freshly ground pepper.

In my experience, the taste of fresh tomatoes can range from flavorless to fantastic. Price doesn’t always tell the story, so it’s always a good idea to ask for a sample in the store, if at all possible. Be a picky shopper and your taste buds will thank you.

© HealthDay

Tuesday, 08 March 2011 09:49 AM
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