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Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol 16 - Superfoods for Athletes Series: Tomatoes
By:  Sheila Kealey   (2007/09/20)


"Superfoods" is a popular tem these days, coined to define foods dense in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and protective phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds that keep plants healthy and help protect them from disease, and studies are revealing that eating a diet with plenty of phytochemical-rich foods may benefit humans as well, by helping protect us from the ravaging effects of free radicals, inflammation, and other factors that may compromise our health, immunity, and athletic performance.

In this series, I'll cover a variety of foods with healing properties, and give you tips on how to incorporate these foods into your daily meals. Articles are adapted from our cookbook Food for Thought: Healing Foods to Savor.

Here's a vegetable that is plentiful in markets at this time of year . . .

Who can resist a juicy, red, ripe tomato off the vine? Whether fresh or cooked, you can enjoy this incredibly versatile fruit in salsas, sauces, soups, and main dishes. In addition, tomatoes contain a host of compounds that may help improve your immune function and fight a number of ailments and conditions.

A high intake of tomato products may reduce disease risk, especially risk for certain cancers, according to a growing body of research. Researchers believe that lycopene, a carotenoid that is abundant in tomato products, contributes to this protective effect. Recent research shows that the presence of other phytochemicals in food may enhance lycopene's effect, suggesting that the "whole food" is more protective than lycopene from a supplement. Carotenoids like lycopene are well known for their antioxidant action, a mechanism that neutralizes free radicals that can damage your body's cells. Other studies have shown that lycopene reduces the growth of prostate tumors in rats, and scientists continue to investigate the mechanisms behind this protective effect. Although these studies are preliminary, enjoying tomatoes and tomato products are a delicious way to add many beneficial nutrients to your diet.

Convenience, Flavor, and Nutrition in a Can!

When tomatoes aren't in season, processed options can be a good choice. Even seasoned chefs appreciate the taste and convenience of canned tomatoes and other tomato products.

While not appropriate for crisp salads or sandwiches, their intense flavor makes them ideal for soups, stews, and sauces.

Processed tomatoes have nutritional benefits as well. As shown in this chart, some processed tomatoes contain up to seven times more lycopene than a fresh tomato.

In addition, your body absorbs the lycopene in processed or cooked tomatoes more readily.

A little fat (like olive oil) also helps lycopene absorption.

FOUR SUPER QUICK Meals with Tomatoes

1. Stir tomato paste into SAUCES and SOUPS.

2. Make an INSTANT PASTA SAUCE by heating canned tomatoes with
jarred tomato sauce and frozen bell peppers.

3. Use canned tomatoes as a base for SOUPS and STEWS.

4. VEGETARIAN CHILI: Mix a can of whole tomatoes with a can of low-fat bean soup.

Stir in diced carrots and onions. Season to taste with cumin.

Selecting . . .

ENJOY tomatoes when they are in season and plentiful. Out of season, it is more difficult to find juicy and delicious tomatoes. It seems that tomatoes are grown for their ability to be shipped long distances rather than taste! Cold storage temperatures also affect the taste and texture of tomatoes. When you can't find good tomatoes, often sweet cherry or grape tomatoes are a safer bet. For the tastiest tomatoes, keep these tips in mind:

LOOK FOR plump tomatoes that are heavy for their size, with firm flesh and unblemished skin. Make sure they have been stored at room temperature. Flavorful ripe tomatoes should have a fresh and sweet aroma; even unripe or green tomatoes should be fragrant.

Storing . . .

STORE tomatoes at room temperature out of direct sunlight to develop the best flavor. Refrigerating tomatoes interferes with the ripening process, leading to an inferior texture and flavor.

If unripe, you can speed the ripening process by placing the tomato in a paper bag with a banana or an apple.


  • BITE SIZED NUTRITION: Pack cherry or grape tomatoes in your LUNCH or SNACK.
  • Quench your thirst with VEGETABLE or TOMATO JUICE.
  • SIMPLE SIDE DISH: Sliced fresh tomatoes make a colorful side dish to any meal. Spruce them up with fresh basil and feta or mozzarella cheese and a splash of olive oil or balsamic vinegar.
  • Use SUN-DRIED TOMATO PESTO to boost the flavor of many foods. Add to hummus, toss with pasta or another whole grain, or spread on bread to flavor a sandwich.
  • SIMPLE SALSA: Combine chopped tomatoes with chopped green onions, fresh cilantro, jalapeno peppers, lime juice, and lime zest.
This article was adapted from Food for Thought: Healing Foods to Savor by Sheila Kealey, Vicky A. Newman, and Susan Faerber. Copyright 2006 Regents of the University of California.
Read more of Sheila's Nutrition Digest Series here.



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