Food of the Week: Tomatoes
Posted on July 31, 2012
Courtesy of: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The word “tomato” may refer to the plant (Solanum lycopersicum) or the edible, typically red,fruit that it bears. Originating in South America, the tomato was spread around the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas, and its many varieties are now widely grown, often in greenhouses in cooler climates.
The tomato vegetable is consumed in diverse ways, including raw, as an ingredient in many dishes and sauces, and in drinks. While it is botanically a fruit, it is considered a vegetable for culinary purposes (as well as by the United States Supreme Court, see Nix v. Hedden), which has caused some confusion. The vegetable is rich in lycopene, which may have beneficial health effects.
The tomato belongs to the nightshade family. The plants typically grow to 1–3 meters (3–10 ft) in height and have a weak stem that often sprawls over the ground and vines over other plants. It is a perennial in its native habitat, although often grown outdoors in temperate climates as anannual.
The tomato is native to South America. Genetic evidence shows the progenitors of tomatoes were herbaceous green plants with small green vegetable and a center of diversity in the highlands of Peru. One species, Solanum lycopersicum, was transported to Mexico, where it was grown and consumed by Meso american civilizations. The exact date of domestication is not known. The first domesticated tomato may have been a little yellow fruit, similar in size to a cherry tomato, grown by the Aztecs of Central Mexico. The word “tomato” comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl, literally “the swelling fruit”.
Spanish explorer Cortés may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City, in 1521, although Christopher Columbus, a Genoese working for the Spanish monarchy, may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in an herbal written in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who named it pomo d’oro, or “golden apple”.
Aztecs and other peoples in the region used the fruit in their cooking; it was cultivated in southern Mexico and probably other areas by 500 BC. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers ofdivination. The large, lumpy tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes.
The poor taste and lack of sugar in modern garden and commercial tomato varieties resulted from breeding of tomatoes which ripen uniformly red. This change occurred after discovery of a variety in the mid 20th century which ripened uniformly which was then widely cross-bred to produce attractive red fruit without the typical green ring surrounding the stem on uncross-bred varieties. Prior to general introduction of this trait tomatoes were able to produce more sugar during the process of ripening and were sweeter and more flavorful.
Tomatoes are now eaten freely throughout the world, and their consumption is believed to benefit the heart, among other organs. They contain the carotene lycopene, one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. In some studies, lycopene, especially in cooked tomatoes, has been found to help prevent prostate cancer, but other research contradicts this claim. Lycopene has also been shown to improve the skin’s ability to protect against harmful UV rays. A study done by researchers at Manchester and Newcastle universities revealed that tomato can protect against sunburn and help keeping the skin looking youthful. Natural genetic variation in tomatoes and their wild relatives has given a genetic plethora of genes that produce lycopene, carotene, anthocyanin, and other antioxidants. Tomato varieties are available with double the normal vitamin C (Doublerich), 40 times normal vitamin A (97L97), high levels of anthocyanin (resulting in blue tomatoes), and two to four times the normal amount of lycopene (numerous available cultivars with the high crimson gene).
Lycopene has also been shown to protect against oxidative damage in many epidemiological and experimental studies. In addition to its antioxidant activity, other metabolic effects of lycopene have also been demonstrated. The richest source of lycopene in the diet is tomato and tomato derived products. Tomato consumption has been associated with decreased risk of breast cancer, head and neck cancers and might be strongly protective against neurodegenerative diseases. Tomatoes and tomato sauces and puree are said to help lower urinary tract symptoms (BPH) and may have anticancer properties. Tomato consumption might be beneficial for reducing cardiovascular risk associated with type 2 diabetes.