In the 17th and early 18th centuries, colonial Americans thought tomatoes were poisonous. But they're not poisonous at all -- in fact, tomatoes are good for you. Tomatoes are rich in vitamin A and potassium and low in calories, which is probably enough to qualify as a nutrient-dense superfood.
Eating tomatoes and tomato-based products has been associated with a lower risk of some types of cancers and cardiovascular disease. While that may be true, eating a diet rich in all types of fruits and vegetables has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, too. So it's difficult to say for sure how much of that effect is specifically due to tomatoes.
One medium-sized raw tomato (2 3/5 inches in diameter) has 22 calories and 1.5 grams of fiber. It's a good source of potassium, vitamin C, folate, vitamin A, vitamin E and vitamin K. A tomato also has almost no fat, 1 gram of protein and about 4.0 grams of carbohydrates.
Tomatoes also contain lycopene, which is a carotenoid that's related to vitamin A and beta carotene. Studies suggest that lycopene works as an antioxidant and may be one reason why tomatoes could have such health protective qualities as cancer prevention. Some population studies indicate tomatoes and lycopene may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, but more clinical studies need to be done to know for sure.
Lycopene may be also good for your heart. Research suggests that having ample amounts of lycopene in your blood may prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and cardiovascular disease in general. One study also found that 25 milligrams or more of lycopene reduces LDL cholesterol levels (the bad kind). It would be difficult to get that much lycopene from raw tomatoes, but lycopene is concentrated by cooking or processing. You could get that much lycopene by eating about 3/4 cup of tomato sauce every day.
Eat More Tomatoes
Tomatoes are easy to find in any grocery store. Fresh tomatoes range in size from large beefsteak tomatoes to small cherry tomatoes, and are available year-round. Select firm, ripe tomatoes that don't have any bruises or discoloration. Canned tomatoes, sauces, salsas and soups can be purchased and stored unopened in your pantry. After they're open, store any leftovers in the refrigerator.
Tomatoes are the kind of superfood I really like. They're easy to find, easy to prepare and cooking or processing them doesn't reduce the health benefit you may get from eating them. Now, I don't consider a blob of ketchup to be a vegetable and I realize you can find tomato sauce buried in some unhealthy places, like under layers of cheese and sausage on a pizza, but it's always nice when a superfood is something simple. Tomatoes are proof that superfoods don't have to be exotic or difficult to find.
Recipes Featuring Tomatoes
Tomatoes Provencal with Anchovy
Ingredients include tomatoes, anchovies, bread crumbs and olive oil. Classic French cooking.
Artichoke Hearts in Tomato Rice
Low in calories and easy to prepare - all you need is a can of stewed tomatoes, a jar of artichokes, green onions and instant rice (add a little fiber with brown rice).
Corn, Tomato & Basil Salad
This recipe uses raw corn and tomatoes so it's super fresh and and nutritious.
Kerbel B, PharmD "Lycopene - Professional Monograph." Natural Standard, copyright 2012.
Riccioni G, Scotti L, Di Ilio E, Bucciarelli V, Ballone E, De Girolamo M, D' Orazio N, Martini F, Aceto A, Bucciarelli T. "Lycopene and preclinical carotid atherosclerosis." J Biol Regul Homeost Agents. 2011 Jul-Sep;25(3):435-41.
Ried K, Fakler P. "Protective effect of lycopene on serum cholesterol and blood pressure: Meta-analyses of intervention trials." Maturitas. 2011 Apr;68(4):299-310.
Sesso HD, Liu S, Gaziano JM, Buring JE. "Dietary lycopene, tomato-based food products and cardiovascular disease in women." J Nutr. 2003 Jul;133(7):2336-41.
United States Department of Agriculture, National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 24. "Nutrient data for 11529, Tomatoes, red, ripe, raw, year round average." Accessed February 7, 2012. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/3289.