Behold the tomato

There’s still time for a last taste or two of summer’s bounty, the fresh tomato.

How much do we love tomatoes? They’re the most popular fruit in the world – and yes, they’re a fruit, not a vegetable. According to this source, more than 60 million tons of tomatoes are produced in the world each year. Most of them will be eaten fresh, canned or in some form of cooked tomato sauce (or, in the case of La Tomatina, they will be flung at other people in what has been billed as the world’s largest tomato fight).

It’s a bonus to know that studies have found tomatoes to be beneficial to health. Tomato consumption has been linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer. Because tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that also happens to be the carotenoid that gives tomatoes their red color, it’s thought they can help protect the body against oxidative damage. There are some indications they might help lower cholesterol as well.

So if we eat enough tomatoes, can they really extend our lives and make us healthier? Americans seem to have a fascination with food or, more accurately, with its health-conferring properties. Anyone remember the oat bran craze? At various times we’ve heard the benefits touted of everything from salmon to pomegranates to garlic.

There’s no doubt many foods have beneficial qualities. What’s up for debate is how much. Is a diet rich in, say, turmeric, really all that good? Or do the benefits taper off beyond a certain point? What’s the best dose for daily consumption? In what form is it most readily bioavailable?

Sometimes what looks promising turns out, on further examination, to not be the miracle ingredient we thought – dietary fiber being a case in point. There was a time when we were all urged to eat lots of fiber to reduce the risk of colon cancer. Further research now suggests fiber consumption is not the most important way to lower your risk of this particular cancer, and that perhaps the more significant factor is how many vegetables you eat.

It can be hard to isolate the effects of a single food or nutrient from overall diet. Study results can often be confounded by outside factors. If tomato-eaters have lower cholesterol, is it because they eat tomatoes, or is their tomato consumption part of an overall lifestyle that includes other behaviors that might reduce cholesterol? It’s also important to remember that many studies are carried out on mice and may not apply to human subjects. In some cases, you’d have to consume enormous amounts of a particular food or nutrient in order to achieve the best results.

We’re still learning about the tomato. One of the more recent findings is that it may not be lycopene alone that’s responsible for some of the tomato’s health-giving qualities; perhaps it’s the synergy of lycopene with all the other phytochemicals that comprise this juicy red fruit. It also appears that tomatoes confer the most benefit when they’re cooked, as in tomato paste or catsup.

Are tomatoes the magic elixir we’d like them to be? Probably not. As with most things in life, moderation and balance are the key. But it’s gratifying all the same to know something that tastes so good also happens to be good for us.

HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta

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