Whether you consider it to be a fruit or a vegetable, call it a “tomayto” or a “tomahto,” the flavor, texture and fragrance of this ‘apple of love’ is delicious, distinctive and unique – and one of the most versatile and widely used of kitchen ingredients.
And despite its bad-boy history of being poisonous or evil, this humble veggie has taken on rock star status as one of the super foods essential for our well-being, energy and vitality.
It has taken center stage because of its incredible phytochemical properties and compounds that are so beneficial for health and longevity.
So let’s explore a bit about its colorful history and the many nutritional benefits of the tantalizing tomato, how to incorporate more into our meal plans, and a couple of recipes to start enjoying their benefits today.
A Bit of Botany & History
This exotic vegetable comes to us via Mesomerica, native to the region in the Andes Mountains that encompasses what is known today as Bolivia, Chile, Columbia and Peru. Indigenous peoples of Mexico are believed to be the first to have actually consumed and domesticated the fruit, which are believed to have been smaller, and of a more golden hue.
Botanically, it belongs to the Solanaceae family of common vegetables, and its botanical moniker is Lycopersicon esculentum. The family name is Nightshade, which also includes potatoes, red and green peppers, chilies, eggplant, cayenne and paprika.
Its more decorative kin are the petunia and flowering tobacco, nicotiana. Also pretty but quite poisonous are the black sheep of the family, belladonna and datura – the ones that give the Nightshade clan its bad reputation.
The Aztec, who had long been growing the fruit when the Spanish arrived, referred to it as ‘tomatl.’ And in the 1500’s the Spanish colonists sent seed back to the old country, which was its introduction to Europe and the rest of the world.
In Italy, a tomato is referred to a ‘pomodoro.’ This is in reference to those early varieties that had a more yellow tinge, as was first noted in European history by Italian herbalist Pietro Matthioli. In 1544, Matthioli described them as ‘pomi d’oro,’ or apples of gold.
And the French (of course) sometimes refer to tomatoes as ‘pommes d’amour,’ meaning ‘apples of love,’ as they were once believed to possess aphrodisiacal qualities. This association with amour came after its initial assessment in Europe of being evil and poisonous, thanks to being categorized with the notorious Nightshades.
Fruit or Vegetable?
The U.S. Supreme Court decided this for us back in 1883 when New Jersey businessman John Nix refused to pay an import tariff for vegetables, arguing that tomatoes are a fruit and therefore non-taxable.
Today, many hundreds of cultivars are available in different types and sizes: organic, heirloom and hybrid are all in use today. And they come in a wide range of colors from the traditional red to various shades of pink, yellow, purple, orange, and even striped varieties.
As they ripen and change from green to red, their acidity level decreases and sweetness increases, as does the vitamin A and C content.
The fruit’s original green color is due to the presence of a photosynthetic pigment called chlorophyll. As the chlorophyll breaks down, additional carotenoids are produced — most notably lycopene, the pigment found in bright red through blue colored fruits and vegetables, and to a lesser degree beta carotene, which is an orange pigment.
Health and Nutritional Benefits
- In nutritional value, they are very low in calories with just 22 per 125 grams, or about 3/4 of a cup – the size of a medium fruit. And, they’re also fat and cholesterol free.
- They are an excellent source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. The fresh fruit, as well as juices and extracts, are often recommended by dieticians and nutritionists for the control and reduction of both weight and cholesterol levels.
- Rich in antioxidants, the compounds present in tomatoes have been found to be protective against free radicals, which contribute to the formation of cancers. (1) They’re particularly effective in helping to protect against breast, colon, prostate, lung, and pancreatic tumors. (3) This is due to their antioxidant properties and inflammation fighting nutrients.
- The same serving size (3/4 cup) provides 6% of daily values for potassium. This is an important component of cells and fluids that helps to control heart rate and blood pressure caused by high sodium levels.
- They also contain high levels of vitamin A (28% of RDA), and are a good source of vitamin C (21% of RDA). And eating foods abundant in vitamin C helps the body develop resistance against infections and root out harmful free radicals.
- They also carry average levels of important B-complex vitamins such as folates, thiamin, niacin, and riboflavin as well some essential minerals like iron, calcium, and manganese. (2)
- Flavonoid antioxidants are abundant as well, such as and beta carotene, xanthins and lutein.
- Lycopene, a flavonoid compound, is a unique phytochemical compound found in fruits and vegetables with yellow, orange, red, blue and purple skins. Together with carotenoids, it helps to protect cells and other structures from harmful free radicals.
- Zeaxanthin is another flavonoid antioxidant found in abundance. It helps protect eyes from macular degeneration as we age by filtering harmful ultraviolet rays.
- Reducing the risk of heart disease is an area of health in which the pomme d’amour is truly exceptional. Their vitamin C content, and more moderate amounts of vitamin E, plus lycopene, are premier antioxidants and heart supportive nutrients with the ability to reduce the risk of lipid peroxidation in the blood.
- Tomato extracts have also been shown to help prevent and reduce unwanted clumping of platelets in the blood – a crucial factor in lowering the risk of heart problems such as atherosclerosis.
- Eating the fresh fruit, and supplementing with extracts, have been shown to have a very positive effect on fats in the bloodstream. Specifically, significant decreases in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels have been shown.
Selection and Storage
Select fresh, ripe globes that feature a beautiful bright red color, firm flesh and blemish-free skin. Avoid those with wrinkles, discoloration, nicks, and bruises or that are overripe and too soft.
Hard or slightly green fruits can be placed in a cool, dark place at room temperature for 2-3 days to aid with ripening. Room temperature toms have more flavor than chilled ones, but ripe ones will perish quickly and should be stored in the fridge. Eat them as fresh as possible to enjoy the full gamut of their many healthful vitamins and antioxidants.
Unfortunately, garden pests are a common occurrence with this succulent favorite. And as such, commercially produced, hybrid varieties are usually subjected to insecticidal sprays.
Always wash thoroughly under cold running water in order to remove dirt and soil. And bathe in a vinegar and baking soda mix to remove any insecticide/fungicide residues if you’re unsure of how they were grown – see our kitchen hacks post for the amounts you should use.
To prepare, discard the stem end and cut into the desired form: quarters, cubes, slices, etc.
The easiest way to peel them is to cut a shallow X in the calyx (blossom) end, then quickly blanch in boiling water, remove and immediately plunge into an ice water bath. The skin will easily peel back to the stem end, which you can carve out with a paring knife.
Tomato Serving Ideas
Tomatoes play an important part in many regionally themed dishes, particularly in Mediterranean, Greek, Italian, Mexican, and Southeast Asian cuisines, and are an integral ingredient in soups, stews, pastas, goulashes, tagines, stir fries, casseroles…
- Fresh fruits are always enjoyed raw in salads for their sweet/tart taste, and they make an excellent complementary flavor to other salad veggies.
- Juice up some fresh pomodoros on their own for a refreshing drink. Or add celery, beets, tart apples, carrots, basil, parsley and ginger for a zippy cocktail. For another option, try our recipe for a spicy bloody mary or a healthy V8-style tomato juice.
- In the summer, make a delicious cold gazpacho soup to start a meal.
- Grill halved or thickly sliced on the barbecue after brushing with olive oil or an herbed vinaigrette.
- Bake halved toms with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and basil, or stuff them with seasoned rice or quinoa.
- Make your own sauce for pasta, stews, soups, etc. We love our recipes for golden tomato sauce and simple marinara.
- Can ripe, whole fruit with celery, onion, parsley and seasonings to enjoy their goodness year round.
- And for the home gardener, what could be better than the first toasted tom and basil sandwich of the season? A slice of toasted, whole grain bread with a light spread of mayo, sliced tomatoes still warm from the sun, some fresh basil and a grating of salt and pepper – mm-mm-mmm. Heaven!
- Enjoy your own sun-dried tomatoes. Dehydrate slices in the sun on screens, or with a dehydrator. Store in airtight containers on their own, or add some olive oil, garlic and basil for a tangy, tasty treat. Use them as an ingredient in our recipe for Sicilian pasta salad!
- Freeze whole as they are, then store in zip lock bags. Add them to soups, stews or goulashes and the skins will slip off easily after being in the hot mix for a minute or two.
- Both ripe and green tomatoes are popular in a wide variety of pickles, relishes and chutneys, all of which make an excellent condiment for meat dishes, with cheese and crackers or used to garnish sandwiches and burgers. Check out the following recipes for savory relish and chutney.
- For a special treat, serve green ones battered and fried – try out our tasty recipe for Hot & Tasty Fried Green Tomatoes below for these savory gems.
Summer Fresh Tomato Relish
Keep the fantastic taste of summer-fresh tomatoes long after the season has passed with this scrumptious relish featuring fresh herbs, tangy spices and malt vinegar.
It’s a great condiment to use with burgers and hot dogs, spread on sandwiches, or to garnish meat, poultry and fish.
This savory tomato chutney is a great way to use up the last of the summer harvest, or any overripe fruit you might have. Serves up very nicely with a variety of hard cheeses and crackers, or as a condiment for poultry, fish and beef.
Make lots: it’s popular and guests will be asking for more! A jar of this chutney also makes a great gift for any foodie.
Fried Green Tomatoes
These savory gems are delicious at any time, but they’re also a good way to use up any underripe tomatoes at the end of the season.
Crisp and crunchy, they’re great for lunch or as a side dish with any savory entrée. Make our recipe for Buttermilk Sauce to drizzle over the top, or serve it on the side as a tangy dip.
Tomatoes are the most flavorful and nicely textured when stored at room temperature. When chilled, they lose both flavor and aroma, which does not return when they’re warmed up.
This is one of the reasons why store bought ones have less flavor than homegrown or those from a farmer’s market.
At harvest time, hit the farmer’s market with a group of friends and have a canning party – share the cost and the labor to enjoy the goodness of ripe, local tomatoes all year.
Tomatoes will continue to ripen off the vine, but much of the flavor will be lost as the mature flavor develops in the last stages of ripening. Commercial growers pick the fruit while it’s still partially green because they ship better, but this is done at the cost of flavor and nutrient development.
When you can, buy locally for the best flavor.
Tomatoes marketed as ‘vine ripened’ can be a bit misleading. Technically, they will still continue to ripen in shipping, and they do have some of the stem attached. However, the stem has been removed from the plant, which is where the flavor and nutrition come from – they really won’t taste any better than ‘off the vine’ produce.
Homegrown tomatoes, ones that have truly been vine ripened, have almost twice as many vitamins as store bought ones that have been artificially ripened, and a whole lot more flavor. That’s how important the final stage of ripening is – again, grow your own, or buy locally.
As if tomatoes weren’t tantalizing enough with their rich, juicy flavor, they’re also exceptionally good for us – all the more reason to enjoy this beneficial fruit/vegetable year round.
Not that I need much encouragement. In fact, I see a plump red Best Boy glowing in the sun right outside my office window, and it is lunchtime, so… pass the salt, please.
(1) PelagiaResearchLibrary.com, Omodamiro O. D. and Amechi U., The Phytochemical Content, Antioxidant, Antimicrobial and Anti-inflammatory Activities of Lycopersicon esculentum(Tomato)
(2) NutritionData.Self.Com, http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2682/2
(3) National Institute of Health,Friedman M, Levin CE, Lee SU, Kim HJ, Lee IS, Byun JO, Kozukue N., Tomatine-containing green tomato extracts inhibit growth of human breast, colon, liver, and stomach cancer cells.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19514731
The staff at Foodal are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice. Foodal and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet.
Photo credits: Shutterstock.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.