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How About Them Tomatoes!

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Tomato, (tə-me-to) or Tomato(tə-ma-to). People have been debating that for years – as well as the health benefits of the red vegetable. KUNC commentator Dr. Marc Ringel has more.

Some of you older listeners may remember the giant kerfuffle caused during the Reagan years when the Secretary of Agriculture suggested reclassifying catsup from condiment to vegetable.

The motivation for making this proposal was suspect from the outset, to save money while making school lunch programs appear more nutritionally balanced than they really were.  Almost as soon as it was revealed, the catsup-as-a-vegetable idea was shot down by nutritionists, Democrats, and comedians on late night talk shows.  Thirty years later it appears that the catsup concept wasn’t really all that harebrained.

Catsup does have a significant amount of lycopene, a class of compounds derived from tomatoes that appears to have some anti-aging properties.  Unfortunately, the health benefits of this ubiquitous sauce are probably neutralized by its high content of salt and sugar.

Lycopenes are antioxidants, chemicals that can slow the natural deterioration of body constituents that is sort of like rusting of metals.  There is evidence, though not conclusive proof, that this category of antioxidant may protect against certain cancers, such as of the colon, breast, and prostate.  Of late, researchers have found that tomato products may also defend against other afflictions of aging such as coronary artery disease, skin damage associated with sun exposure, and even osteoporosis and dementia.

Cooking tomatoes concentrates lycopene and makes it more available for absorption.  You can get 19 mg. of lycopene by eating ¼ cup of tomato paste, 5 mg. from a half-cup of stewed tomatoes, two-and-a-half mg. from a tablespoon of catsup, and 2.3 mg. by consuming a cup of raw tomato.  If you ignore salt and sugar content, a serving of catsup is marginally better than one of uncooked tomato.

Here’s the dilemma.  The antioxidant value of lycopene probably does not account for all of the substance’s salutary effects.  After all, vitamin E is an antioxidant that, in spite of a ton of apparently sound biochemical theory and even more hype, has recently been found to be harmful as a supplement.  Consuming raw tomato appears to bestow benefits above and beyond the anti-oxidative activity of lycopene.

We really don’t understand much about the undeniable health benefits of raw fruits and vegetables.  It’s not just fiber, antioxidants, complex sugars, vitamins or any other single constituent that makes Mother Nature’s cornucopia good for you, nor even that fruits and vegetables displace saturated fats and simple sugars from the diet.  We just don’t know.

For now the prudent course is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, especially raw ones, and cooked tomatoes.  But not too much catsup, no matter what the Secretary of Agriculture said three decades ago.

I have only one regret about delivering this news at this time.  If your garden is like ours, the tomatoes are about done.  Currently my two biggest vegetable garden wishes are for fresh tomatoes to be available year-round and for zucchini to be high in lycopene.  We always have too much zucchini.


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