Native to South America, tomatoes are the fruit of a nightshade plant. Their botanical name is Solanum lycopersicum.
Two hundred years ago, we thought tomatoes were poisonous, but now they are the fourth most popular fruit or vegetable—losing out only to potatoes, onions, and lettuce in the popularity stakes.
The majority of tomatoes are picked before they’re ripe so there’s time to transport them to stores. To turn them the red color we all recognize, tomatoes are treated with ethylene gas.
This gas occurs naturally in the fruit over time, but producers use it to ripen the tomatoes artificially so they arrive on shelves in good condition.
This isn’t a true ripening, though, and we lose out on the highest levels of nutrients and nearly all of the flavor. If you buy locally grown tomatoes that have ripened naturally, you’ll get the most benefit as well as cutting down your carbon footprint.
Times have changed for the humble tomato, but there are health concerns surrounding them because tomatoes can be bad for you in some cases.
What Are the Health Benefits of Tomatoes?
Despite the potential health dangers, tomatoes are packed with nutritional benefits.
One mid-sized tomato contains 28% of your daily vitamin C allowance. They also contain potassium, vitamin K, and lots of the B vitamin folate, which is often called folic acid and is recommended for pregnant women.
Other great nutritional benefits are the antioxidants lycopene and beta-carotene; naringenin, the anti-inflammatory flavonoid; and chlorogenic acid, the antioxidant compound.
Here’s how tomatoes can help improve your well-being.
1. They Can Lower Blood Pressure
Tomatoes contain potassium, which is known to widen arteries and help maintain healthy blood pressure.
You need to cut down on salt to give your arteries the best chance, but upping your intake of tomatoes is a good step in the right direction.
The recommended daily amount of potassium is 4,700 milligrams. That’s a target less than 2% of the population meets.
Potassium also protects against muscle deterioration, preserves bone density, and cuts down the risk of kidney stones.
2. They Improve Heart Health
Tomatoes contain potassium for healthy arteries, vitamin C, and choline to boost your heart health.
Their folate content is important for heart health, too. It helps stabilize homocysteine levels, which are an amino acid created as a result of protein breakdown.
Homocysteine increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. Folic acid supplementation may reduce the risk, but tomatoes are a great natural source.
3. They Help Fight Cancer
Full of vitamins and antioxidants, tomatoes combat free radicals, which cause cancer.
Another study shows lycopene can protect against certain types of prostate cancer, especially when consumed as tomato sauce. It is thought that tomatoes provide over 80% of lycopene in the American diet.
4. They Support a Diabetic Diet
High fiber diets decrease blood glucose levels and improve lipid and insulin levels.
Tomatoes are not the first source of fiber we think of, but they are packed with healthy fruit fiber. There are around two grams of it in a handful of cherry tomatoes.
5. They Can Ease and Prevent Constipation
Tomatoes are full of fiber, as we’ve seen, but they also have a high water content.
Given the fact that we’re not so great at staying hydrated with drinks, tomatoes can step in to fight against constipation. Some people describe tomatoes as the laxative fruit because their fiber and water content is so effective at clearing constipation.
6. They Improve Eye Health
Lycopene, beta-carotene, and lutein in tomatoes help protect your eyesight against cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the US.
This study suggests that people eating a lot of carotenoids could cut their risk of neovascular age-related degeneration by 35%.
7. They Boost Your Skin
Tomatoes are full of vitamin C, which helps produce collagen. Collagen is a base material for the production of hair, skin, and nails. Without collagen, wrinkles, weak nails, and brittle hair are common.
8. They Support Pregnant Women
Pregnant women are advised to take a folic acid supplementation to prevent birth defects.
Tomatoes are packed with folate, and while we aren’t suggesting you swap your supplement for tomatoes, they do make a great naturally occurring extra dose.
Are Some Tomatoes Better Than Others?
There are many different types of tomatoes available to us—over a hundred varieties, in fact. They are all great at delivering vitamin C, lycopene, and beta-carotene, but some tomatoes contain higher amounts.
Cherry tomatoes may contain more beta-carotene than others, and kumatoes—that’s the brown tomatoes—have slightly more carbs and fructose. Beefsteak tomatoes are the largest variety and contain more of everything.
It’s thought golden orange tomatoes are best for us because they were the original fruits from South America before being crossbred to produce the red shade we tend to favor. This has resulted in less naturally occurring lycopene.
If you were wondering whether canned tomatoes count, then yes, they do.
In fact, because they’re harvested ripe and red beforehand, canned tomatoes are often healthier than fresh produce.
It may also surprise you that cooking can increase tomato nutrients.
Cooked tomatoes, tomato paste, and sauces provide optimal absorption over raw versions because the nutrients are easier to digest when broken down by heat—but watch out for added sugar and salt, which can make processed versions unhealthy.
Are Tomatoes Bad for You?
Maybe you’ve heard some chatter and wondered, “Why are tomatoes bad for you?” Many people are wary of tomatoes, partially because they are part of a poisonous plant family.
The fruit is not harmful, but tomato leaves create symptoms similar to an allergic reaction and even cause death in very severe cases.
Never eat tomato leaves, no matter how good they smell.
Each year, tomatoes are listed in the top twelve fruits and veggies with the highest pesticide residue. In 2018, they were number 9. In case you were wondering, strawberries topped the list.
Always wash tomatoes before eating them, and if possible, look for organic versions.
Generally speaking, it’s people with certain conditions who should be wary of eating tomatoes.
Scientists think it’s nitrogen-containing substances in the nightshade family called alkaloids that cause most of the problems.
Alkaloids have a bitter taste and deter insects from making a meal of the plant. They’re mostly found in leaves, but some occur in the fruit.
If you have no health problems, they shouldn’t cause difficulty, but tomatoes can be bad for you if you have the following conditions.
If You Have Inflammatory Bowel Disease
People who have inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis find that alkaloids can irritate the gut lining, causing further symptoms—some of which can be severe.
Animal studies suggest this is the case, so people with IBD may find that tomatoes are bad for them.
If You’re Taking Beta-Blockers
Tomatoes contain lots of potassium, so people taking beta-blockers should be wary of eating too many.
This is because beta-blockers cause a rise in potassium. A high potassium count can lead to changes in heart rhythm.
Those with poor kidney function can be affected by high potassium foods, too.
If You Have GERD
GERD—that’s gastroesophageal reflux disease—sufferers may find that tomatoes increase their heartburn and induce vomiting. This because tomatoes are fairly acidic and irritate the gut lining.
If You Have Autoimmune Diseases
Anecdotal evidence from people with autoimmune disease suggests that tomatoes cause a flare-up of symptoms such as arthritis pain.
Researchers guess this is because nightshade plants contain a type of vitamin D that creates calcium deposits and adversely affects joints.
How to Eat More Tomatoes
If you are free from health conditions that make tomatoes bad for you, increasing your intake is a healthy step.
Here’s how you can eat more of the good stuff.
- Snack on cherry tomatoes
- Dip tomatoes in hummus
- Slice tomatoes and add them to sandwiches, wraps, rolls
- Add a can of chopped tomatoes to stews, soups, spaghetti Bolognese, lasagne, or any pasta dishes
- Add them to pizza, moussaka, omelet, or as a topping for grilled cheese on toast.
- Make salsa for lunch with breadsticks
- Drink tomato juice
- Add ketchup!
Tomatoes have rightly been hailed as a superfood. Eating more of them may protect against cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, and other life-limiting diseases.
So long as you are free from conditions that tomatoes can provoke or worsen, and if you wash them thoroughly before use, tomatoes are an important part of a healthy fruit- and vegetable-filled diet.