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The Sensitive Foodie: Tomato power!

Monday, 29 October 2012

Tomato power!

Natural food products are constantly under investigation by scientists - and often the large corporations that fund them - to find the next superfood, the key to health or a particular chemical that can be claimed to be discovered and then patented. One of the latest studies to hit the headlines is about tomatoes, or rather the lycopene found in them. Published in Neurology magazine this month (the abstract can be found at http://www.neurology.org/content/79/15/1540.abstract if you're interested!), a group of scientists in Finland monitored over 1000 men for 12 years and found the risk of stroke was cut by 55% in those with the highest blood levels of lycopene.  That's pretty impressive!
Lycopene has already been heralded as a hero with evidence that it can help prevent or slow the growth of certain cancers, particularly prostate cancer. There are even tomatoes that have been bred to have double the amount of lycopene, and no doubt sold at a premium price! (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4896026.stm).
Lycopene is a carotenoid, a phytochemical that gives the red pigment to some fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, watermelon, red bell peppers and papaya, but sadly not strawberries or cherries! It's a powerful antioxidant that soaks up free radicals roaming around the body. These great anti oxidant properties have been connected to improving conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and now stroke. Free radicals are also associated with the ageing process, so hopefully if they are mopped up by lycopene, youthful skin will follow (maybe!).
The percentage of lycopene in red fruit and vegetables increases as it ripens. In fact, the lycopene content of tomatoes has been shown to increase and become more bioavailable when processed. This includes tinned tomatoes and manufactured tomato products such as pasta sauce and ketchup. This is great for food companies, some of whom are sponsoring ongoing research into the beneficial effects of ketchup. Unfortunately, from a purely nutritional point of view, this causes some other problems; the tinning process increases the sodium content of tomatoes and most sauces and ketchups have lots of added sugar, salt and preservatives, so not so good for overall health. And of course the supplement industry has seen an opportunity and you can buy lycopene tablets, but are these really necessary?
Tomatoes as a whole food contain lots of other goodies including potassium and vitamin C which tend to be lost when processed and heated, along with B vitamins, beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and of course has fibre and no cholesterol, all good reasons to eat them in their natural form, a fantastic whole food in a healthy diet.
Personally, I love to roast tomatoes with onion, a little olive oil and some garlic, then when cooked blitz them all together and reheat either as a sauce or add some vegetable stock to make a delicious tomato soup. When we first came to India, it was quite hard to find tinned tomatoes or tomato sauces that were suitable for someone with food intolerance - milk turns up in the strangest of things! So I had to get used to using the real thing, and found this to be the best way - the roasting concentrates the flavour and the blitzing increases the bioavailability of the lycopene without adding lots of nasty extras.
Interestingly, watermelon contains more lycopene than tomatoes, but also a higher water content, so you would need to eat a larger amount. It's not as easily available in the west as tomatoes though, although over here in India, it so easy to find - and cheap - and works great as a base for smoothies.
Of course, the real message in this latest research is that fruit and vegetables are good for us! Eating a full range of produce provides us with all the nutrients we need to stay healthy - as long as they are in their wholefood form. If we only ate red pigmented vegetables then not only would we miss out on all the other antioxidants and nutrients available, in the long run the pigment could become concentrated in our skin and as much as I love tomatoes, I don't really want to look like one!
Interesting tomato fact (well I found it interesting!!)
Apparently, a whole tomato has no flavour; that only comes by biting, cutting or cooking it. Carefully extracted tomato liquid has no taste. Biting into the fruit releases an enzyme that breaks down larger molecules into smaller ones and gives it the flavour. This enzyme reacts differently when cut crossways, so they will have more flavour sliced.

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