The bright red fruit of summer has been causing controversy in the media recently with researchers claiming that tomatoes work as well as statins for lowering cholesterol, so it seemed a good time to assess the many health benefits of this wonder food.
The recent interest in tomatoes has been due to an Australian study, carried out by the University of Adelaide and published in Maturitas. It was a systematic review of a number of previous studies from all over the world and it looked at the relationship between lycopene, the chemical responsible for the red color of tomatoes, and cholesterol levels.
The researchers concluded that lycopene has antioxidant effects, and so helps to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol which we are told can lead to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Researchers likened the effectiveness of consuming 25mg of lycopene per day to a low dose of statins, in its effect of reducing cholesterol levels.
Sources of lycopene
It seems that lycopene is a very useful substance for combating high cholesterol and the resulting risk of heart disease, but it also has other benefits. As an antioxidant it reduces the risk of free radical damage within the body, therefore helping to prevent the development of a number of cancers.
While all tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, in this case eating tomatoes raw may not be the best way to get this nutrient. It is difficult for the body to absorb lycopene from raw tomatoes, so cooking them is a healthier option. Tomato paste, tomato sauce and various forms of cooked tomatoes, all of which can be used in making pasta or pizza, are effective ways to increase your lycopene intake.
Other sources of lycopene include watermelon, guava, papaya, pink grapefruit, apricots and rose hips. However, in these sources it is present in lower concentrations than in tomatoes.
Other benefits of tomatoes
There is far more to the humble tomato than a simple dose of lycopene. A member of the potato family, tomatoes are packed full of healthy nutrients in just the right proportion for the human body to make use of, and they are very low in calories to boot.
Here are a few of the additional nutrients found in tomatoes:
- Beta carotene is a powerful antioxidant that helps to combat a number of cancers, and is also converted into Vitamin A by the body. Vitamin A is essential for growth, to maintain good eyesight and skin, and to protect the lining of the digestive, respiratory and urinary tracts.
- Potassium is a mineral that is essential for nerve impulse transmissions within the body. It also balances fluid and electrolyte levels, helps to maintain a regular heart beat, and regulates blood pressure.
- Vitamin C is essential for the production of collagen, and is used to maintain healthy skin, bones, teeth and gums. Vitamin C helps in the healing of wounds. It is also needed for iron absorption and to produce neurotransmitters that regulate blood flow and sleep. Although cooked tomatoes are a better source of lycopene, you will get more Vitamin C from tomatoes if you eat them raw.
- Vitamin E is a vital antioxidant that protects the body from damage when polyunsaturated fats are oxidized within the body’s cells. It is also needed to maintain healthy blood cells, to protect the lungs and tissues from pollutants, and to produce certain enzymes.
As you can see there are plenty of reasons to include a large volume of tomatoes in your diet. They form an important part of the Mediterranean diet which has long been valued for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Because there are so many ways to cook with tomatoes there is no excuse not to include this valuable food in your diet.