Tomatoes are an edible fruit that hail from the nightshade family. Yes-I said fruit. As in not vegetable. Botanically, the tomato is a fruit, while for culinary purposes it is treated as a vegetable. Although the tomato plant originated in the South American Andes, its use as a food crop dates back to at least 500BC in southern Mexico. It continued to spread throughout the world after the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The word tomato comes from the Nahuatl word “tomatotl” and first appeared in print usage in 1595. The earliest discovered cookbook that includes recipes for using tomatoes dates back to 1692 and came from Naples.
While tomatoes were a popular plant for ornamental uses in Europe, they were not eaten for centuries because the mistaken belief that they were poisonous. They were also once believed to be a new form of eggplant. Once the fruit of the tomato plant was determined to be safe for human consumption, Italy began to develop many unique varieties to be used in sauces, pizza and for drying. There are approximately 7,500 varieties of tomatoes being grown for various purposes worldwide. While tomatoes are synonymous with Italian cuisine, China is actually the largest producer of commercial tomatoes in the world. Major producers in the United States include Florida and California and it has become one of the most common garden fruit grown in the country.
The fruit of the tomato is as versatile as it is colorful. Ripened fruit come in a wondrous variety of color, including red, yellow, orange, pink, purple, green, black, white and bi-colors, each possessing its own unique texture and flavor. Home grown tomatoes are chosen for flavor above all else while commercially grown fruit are chosen for uniform shape and size, disease and pest resistance and the ability to ripen after harvest. There are two main types of tomato plants: determinate and indeterminate. A determinate tomato bush tops off at a specific height and produces a full crop at one time. It is the preferred type of plant for commercial growers and home canners. Indeterminate tomatoes develop vines that do not stop growing and continue to produce fruit until the plant is killed off by frost. This is the preferred type for home growers and farmers who wish to sell their produce at farmers markets for an entire season.
Unfortunately, not all tomatoes are created equally. Those grown by commercial farmers are harvested before they have ripened on the vine. Ethylene gas is used to ripen them artificially, resulting in a fruit that has a longer shelf life but less flavor and a mealy texture. Tomatoes picked at the peak of the season tend to have both the best flavor and texture. Tomatoes should be stored, unwashed, at room temperature. Avoid direct sunlight and place them stem down to slow rot. Tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator if at all possible, as this leads flavor loss. Unripened tomatoes should be stored in a paper bag to speed the ripening process.
The benefits of a diet rich in tomatoes has been well documented. Most notable is the fruit’s abundance of lycopene, one of the world’s most powerful natural anti-oxidants. Benefits of a diet rich in lycopene include:
- Decreased risk of prostate cancer
- Decreased risk of breast cancer
- Decreased risk of head and neck cancer
- Skin is better able to protect against UV rays
- Protection against neuro-degenerative disease
- Decreased symptoms from urinary tract infections
- Reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease in type 2 diabetics
Tomatoes are also a good source of potassium, folic acid, vitamins A, C, E, K and B6 as well as thiamin, niacin, magnesium, phosphorous and copper. The benefits of these nutrients are numerous and include stronger bones and the ability for them to repair themselves after being damaged, improving vision, prevention of night blindness, reduction in the risk of macular degeneration, prevention of kidney and gall stones, a decrease in inflammation and allergic reactions and a boost in weight loss hormones. As if that wasn't enough, tomatoes are also low in sodium, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories.
If you are looking for some inspiring recipes to help you add more of this amazing fruit to your diet, consider these: