MIREILLE BLACKE is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Dietitian-Nutritionist (RD, CD-N), Behavioral Health and Addiction Specialist, and Nutrition Educator with a background in rock radio, the music business, and media. A Connecticut Yankee, Mireille professes a pathological love of New Orleans culture, literature, and food, for which she solidly blames the novels of Anne Rice. Mireille earned an MA in Psychology from Central Connecticut State University, and is presently working on a second MS (in Nutrition) from St. Joseph College.
“A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.”
-Laurie Colwin, ‘Home Cooking’
June is the month of the Creole Tomato in New Orleans, which means local restaurants, recipes, farmer’s markets, and at festivals (such as the annual French Market Creole Tomato Festival) feature this South Louisiana crop. A principal ingredient in Creole cooking, this tomato adds distinct and robust flavor and juiciness whether eaten raw, sliced, or diced for use in salads and sandwiches.
(Learn more about what makes a tomato a Creole here. http://southernfood.org/okra/?p=2063)
In addition to the Creole variety, there is another legendary Southern tomato, and this Yankee learned that first-hand. Many years ago at the annual Destrehan Plantation Festival (Destrehan, LA) and far from being a Registered Dietitian at the time, I remember being surprised that anyone would consider frying a green tomato…until I tasted one. (Find out the big deal for yourself with this recipe for Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes.)
Aside from these Southern legends, dozens of other tomato varieties are available across the country today, throughout the year, presenting diversity of size, shape and color. Two of the most popular are the extremely flavorful heirloom, and the small, round cherry tomato, used frequently in salads, side dishes, and as garnish. Adding to your options, tomatoes are available to the consumer as sun-dried (chewy, sweet, dark and intensely flavored), canned, pastes (cans or tubes), and purées. Tomatoes are commonly processed as sauce (spaghetti, pizza, and BBQ), ketchup, and tomato juice. You are unlikely to find many Registered Dietitians (RDs) that encourage consumption of processed foods, but in the case of tomatoes, I will make an exception! Raw, cooked, or processed, you’re good to go.
Many Southerners enjoy a good scandal, and the tomato obliges with a bit of a checkered past. As with the avocado profiled in last month’s To Your Health column, the tomato’s history can be traced back to the Aztecs in Mexico, where it was cultivated centuries before Spanish explorers and missionaries introduced it to the rest of the world. Due to an initial unsavory reputation as sinister and poisonous as a member of the nightshade family of plants, the tomato was once considered dangerous and not readily accepted for consumption (except by Spanish and Italian culinary risk-takers), earning it the nickname of “wolf peach.” The tomato was deemed edible circa 1838, and has gained popularity in the United States ever since.
You say tomato, I say…fruit or vegetable? Though the tomato fits the botanical definition of a fruit (it has seeds), it was legally classified as a vegetable by the United States Supreme Court in 1893 in an effort to protect American farmers. Imported vegetables were subjected to tariffs, but imported fruits were not. With its primary function established for use in soups, salads, and entrees, the tomato’s classification changed from fruit to vegetable with a smack of the gavel. While this debate continues, there is no argument that tomato consumption considerably benefits your health.
A serving size of tomato is considered 1 medium-sized tomato, 1 cup fresh chopped or canned tomatoes, 8-10 cherry tomatoes, 1/8 cup tomato paste, or ½ cup tomato juice. One serving of raw tomato provides 32 calories, 0.4 g total fat (0.1 g saturated fat), 2.2 g fiber, 1.6 g protein, 7.1 g carbohydrate, 9 mg sodium, 427 mg potassium, and no cholesterol. Tomatoes are excellent sources of antioxidants, dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which contribute to considerable health benefits. The multiple nutrients found in tomatoes include vitamin A, B-complex vitamins, folate, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, chromium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, manganese, and potassium. The nutrient-dense tomato is flavorful and beneficial to your health, particularly with regard to heart disease and certain forms of cancer. Flavonoid antioxidant properties in tomatoes help to maintain healthy mucus membranes and skin, vision, and bone health, and also protect against various cancers, including colon, prostate, breast, endometrial, lung, and pancreatic. Like avocadoes, tomatoes are also a significant source of lutein, which helps to maintain eye health and protect against cancer as we age.
The tomato’s secret weapon to better health is lycopene, which helps to improve cholesterol profiles, lower high blood pressure, and protect men from prostate cancer. Lycopene is responsible for the color of red tomatoes, and its antioxidant benefits (reduction of cellular damage throughout the body) are linked with a reduced risk of prostate, lung, and stomach cancers. Lycopene also prevents skin damage from UV rays and offers protection from skin cancer. Processed tomatoes (canned tomatoes, tomato sauce/paste, and ketchup) have higher concentrations of lycopene because cooking breaks down cell walls; in raw tomatoes, lycopene is bound to cell walls, and processing frees it. Processed/cooked tomatoes contain between 2-8 times the lycopene available in a raw tomato. Better yet? Including a small amount of fat in your diet will increase lycopene absorption. Lycopene is fat-soluble and needs dietary fat for transport to the bloodstream. [Consider serving tomatoes with olive oil, feta cheese, nuts, or avocado.] To maximize health benefits, aim for daily lycopene consumption.
Beverages with tomato are rising in popularity. Though tomato juice may be an excellent alternative to higher sugar beverages such as orange juice, be sure to watch the sodium content. That one glass of V8 may contain as much salt as several small bags of potato chips, so choose from lower sodium tomato juice options. Because so many cocktail mixers are laden with high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial ingredients, and sodium, a healthier option is the Bloody Mary, which is typically made with pureed tomatoes. Spicy V8 provides 100% juice and less sodium than some competitors, and adds kick to a Bloody Mary.
Low Sodium V8 contains 70% less (140 mg in one cup, about 7 percent of the daily recommended intake of 2,300 mg) than the regular version. Looking to drop a few pounds? Replacing two daily cups of orange juice with Low Sodium V8 can save 840 calories (and about a quarter of a pound) in one week.
Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD):
1) An apple a day? Pick a tomato instead. Tomatoes have more health benefits due to phyto-chemical properties (naturally occurring chemical compounds in plants) than the often-referenced apple. In both cases, the fruit’s antioxidant power lies within its skin, so make use of the whole food as much as possible.
2) Mix it up. With so many varieties of tomato available, there is no excuse to be boring. Creole, cherry, and heirloom tomatoes are wonderful raw. Toss sundried tomatoes in with salads and sandwiches. Add Cayenne-Tomato Relish to hot or cold sandwiches. Crave pizza? Double the sauce, cut the fatty meat toppings in half, or substitute them with vegetables. Bring Leah Chase’s Stuffed Tomatoes to your next summer gathering.
3) Seeing red. When it comes to lycopene content, red pigment is the key, so orange and yellow varieties don’t count. Also, organic tomatoes may contain up to three times the lycopene as non-organic varieties. To maximize your lycopene intake, try this Tomato and Watermelon Salad recipe : red watermelon is another excellent lycopene source.
4) Pick your poison. Tomatoes are members of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, along with potatoes, eggplant, chili peppers, and tobacco. Along with arthritis symptoms, potentially toxic substances in nightshades (glycoalkaloids) can produce symptoms ranging from a burning mouth or tingling tongue to extreme allergic reactions in some individuals. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include itching of the skin and/or eyes, runny nose, chest constriction, and gastrointestinal distress (abdominal pain, vomiting diarrhea).
5) KISS up. When choosing a tomato sauce, keep it simple and opt for brands with the few ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil. Avoid excess ingredients such as soybean oil or sugar, which can substantially increase calories and saturated fat.
6) Down some liquid courage. Sometimes it’s easier to drink your fruits and vegetables (note: one glass of some vegetable juices contains four times the lycopene found in one medium-sized tomato), but always check labels for sodium levels when selecting tomato juices, sauces, and soups. Or, juice your own! Also, there are nearly as many recipes for tomato soup as there are varieties of tomato.
Though the heat and humidity of a summer in the South can be unrelenting, grab a napkin and head toward your local farmer’s market to find those tomatoes (or fried green tomatoes, tomato gelato, tomato basil crepes, and so on) and alleviate some of that misery. Your body (and spirit) will thank you for it.