American Society For Nutrition

An Ode to the Tomato

An Ode to the Tomato

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
Posted on 09/01/2009 at 03:28:00 PM by Student Blogger
By: Rachel K.


It's that time of the year again……..tomato season.  The long, hot days of summer are in full swing and the firm, green tomato fruits are ripening into vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow.

From the beginning, tomatoes have been a big part of my life.  My family owns and operates a fourth-generation canning business whose main product line is processed tomato products.  In addition, my father is an avid gardener, and from a very early age I remember growing and harvesting our own fruit.  In college, I studied pharmacy but eventually decided that I did not want to pursue a career as a pharmacist dispensing medication.  As graduation approached, I found myself more interested in disease prevention, so I applied to the Human Nutrition graduate program at Ohio State.  In an ironic twist of fate, my graduate thesis project focuses on carotenoids present in tomatoes.  I'm currently preparing my research proposal, so I've been thinking a lot about tomatoes lately.

Tomatoes belong to the Solanaceae, or “nightshade” family of plants, which include peppers, eggplant, and potatoes.  The tomato plant originated in the Andes of South America in the country we know today as Peru.  The Spanish conquistadors are responsible for bringing the fruit to Europe, which was named “apple of gold”, or pomi d'oro, by the Italians (known today as pomodoro).  Italian cuisine has never recovered.

Today, China is the largest producer of tomatoes followed by the United States, which produced approximately 14 million tons in 2007.  Americans consume approximately 75% of their tomatoes from processed tomato products, most commonly as tomato sauce.

The Solanaceae family of plants contain a class of compounds known as glycoalkaloids which can be toxic at high doses and are currently being investigated for therapeutic properties at low doses (not to worry - the level of these compounds in ripe tomato fruits is low).  Tomatoes also contain an array of micronutrients, including provitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, folate, and alpha-tocopherol.  Red tomatoes are also a rich source of the carotenoid lycopene, which imparts the red color.  The consumption of tomatoes and tomato products has been associated with a reduced risk for a number of cancers (including prostate, lung, and stomach cancer) and reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.  Current research is focused on trying to determine what component(s) of tomatoes may be responsible for these health effects.  

So enjoy the tomatoes while they are fresh!  Stop by your local farmer's market and pick up a tomato – or if you're lucky pick a fresh one from the garden.  You'll find that a grocery store tomato just cannot compete with the tangy sweet taste of a fresh picked fruit.  

Friedman, M.  2002.  Tomato glycoalkaloids: role in the plant and in the diet.  Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.  50:5751-5780.

Giovannucci E.  1999.  Tomatoes, tomato-based products, lycopene, and cancer: review of the epidemiological literature.  Journal of the National Cancer Institute.  91(4):317-331.

Paran, I., van der Knaap, E.  2007.  Genetic and molecular regulation of fruit and plant domestication traits in tomato and pepper.  Journal of Experimental Botany.  58(14):3841-3852.

Sesso H, Liu S, Gaziano JM, Buring JE.  2003.  Dietary lycopene, tomato-based food products and cardiovascular disease in women.  Journal of Nutrition.  133:2336-2341.

UN Food and Agriculture Organization, accessed on August 21, 2009

United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service , accessed on August 21, 2009

United States Department of Agriculture, Nutrient Data Bank , accessed on August 21, 2009

1 Comment
Posted Sep 02, 2009 10:37 PM by Emily
I didn't know that your family owns a canning business, Rachel! No wonder you have such a close relationship with the tomato. :-) I enjoyed reading your ode to one of my favorite summer fruits.