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Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License,

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The Truth about Tomatoes

By Vicki McClure Davidson


These tiny golden pear tomatoes, grown in the garden of a colleague of mine, may be similar to the small, yellow xitomatl fruit, the first domesticated tomatoes that were grown by the Aztecs centuries ago. | Photo credit: Vicki McClure Davidson
These tiny golden pear tomatoes, grown in the garden of a colleague of mine, may be similar to the small, yellow <em>xitomatl</em> fruit, the first domesticated tomatoes that were grown by the Aztecs centuries ago. | Photo credit: Vicki McClure Davidson

The versatility of the common tomato is inspiring and mind-boggling. It is a staple in most Mediterranean and Latin American countries, can be served cold, hot, puréed, stuffed, diced, jellied, stewed, broiled, braised, in soups, in sandwiches, in salads... the amount of frugal, health-conscious recipes that use tomatoes as a main ingredient number in the millions. The tomato is said to have been around since as early as 700 A.D., growing wild in the Andes of South America and cultivated by the Incas and Aztecs.

Reportedly, there is evidence that the first domesticated tomato was a little yellow fruit, an ancestor of L. cerasiforme, grown by the Aztecs in ancient Mexico—they called it xitomatl (pronounced shi-to-ma-tlh), meaning "plump thing with a navel."

An average-sized red tomato is low in calories and rich in vitamins, particularly Vitamin A (20 percent of daily values) and Vitamin C (40 percent of daily values). They're also a good source of fiber, potassium, iron, phosphorus, and Vitamin B. A thorough review of scientific literature strengthens the evidence that eating tomatoes and tomato-based products can provide powerful protection against many kinds of cancer. The data are strongest for reducing the incident of cancers of the prostate gland, lung and stomach, but also extend to several other kinds, including breast, pancreatic, colorectal, esophageal, oral, and cervical cancers.

Some studies (disputed by other studies) have indicated that men who eat a great quantity of tomatoes per week (in marinara sauces, pizza, whatever, as in a typical Mediterranean diet) have little to no prostate cancer as compared to other men who do not. Tomatoes, reasonably priced when they are in season, are filled with antioxidants and beta-carotene. Quite the legacy of health benefits!

Historically, tomatoes were not always so appreciated. The Scots, hundreds of years ago, not only would not eat them, but determined that they were poisonous because they were not mentioned in the Bible. Britain didn't trust them, either, because they were in the nightshade family. Italians didn't truly trust tomatoes for a long time, either, incorporating them finally in their diet during the late 1700s. Another odd belief was that the seeds from tomatoes had to be removed prior to eating them—this myth is still believed by many people in different parts of the world today.

Tomatoes were late to arrive in America. President Thomas Jefferson, having eaten tomatoes in Paris, is said to have begun growing them in Virginia in 1781. It took about 50 years for Americans in our fledgling country to learn of them and embrace them enough to include in American cookbooks.

In The America's Kitchen Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, the results of tests conducted on the flavors of canned tomatoes are included. Here are their findings:

"Ten months out of the year, the quality of canned tomatoes easily surpasses that of any fresh tomatoes you may be able to find. Picked at the peak of ripeness and canned immediately, they are sweet, flavorful, and convenient. We tasted eleven brands of canned tomatoes, both straight from the can and in our Quick Tomato Sauce, and discovered, not surprisingly, that not every brand was up to snuff. Whether you are buying whole or diced tomatoes, look for those that are packed in juice rather than puree, which has an unpleasant cooked tomato flavor. The winning brand, Muir Glen, uses organic tomatoes and won accolades for its vibrant, fresh-from-the-garden flavor."

If you're growing your own tomatoes, here are a few excellent tips on ripening and harvesting tomatoes from Tomato Dirt:

Tomato Tips & Trivia

Tomatoes have amazing health benefits, but have been maligned over the centuries. | Photo credit: Scott M. Liddell,


If you have are growing tomatoes in a vegetable garden, here are some great tips on how you can save your end-of-season tomatoes, from Expert Village.

Basic Gardening Tips: How to Save End-of-Season Tomatoes


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The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook: Featuring More Than 1,200 Kitchen-Tested Recipes, America's Test Kitchen, 2005.
Dodson, Mardi, Bachmann, Janet, and Williams, Paul, National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website, "Organic Greenhouse Tomato Production," ATTRA Publication #IP190/197, (, 2002.
Fresh Plaza website, (
Morton, Sally, Suite 101 website, "Fruit or Vegetable?", (, November 29, 2006.
Real Simple, Tomato Trivia, (
Rooks, P.J., Tomato Trivia, Associated Content, ( Tomato Casual website, (
Wikipedia website, (