Where are tomatoes from?
Originally tomatoes are from Central and South America, possibly originating around the Andes. Their use in Mexican cuisines helped to spread them around the Spanish speaking world, particularly into the Mediterranean and Italy, where they were widely adopted. The name tomato is thought to have been adopted from the Spanish 'tomate', which in turn was derived from 'xitomatl' an Aztec word meaning 'plump fruit'. Although the tomato plant is frost sensitive it can be grown in cold temperate regions (there have been successful varieties grown in Siberia!), today they are grown in greenhouses and warm climates around the world. Tomatoes are members of the nightshade family Solanaceae, of the species Solanum lycopersicum.
What do tomatoes look like?
The most common tomato is a 'globe' tomato and is commonly red. Wild tomatoes are smaller and are also red, however as you can see from the picture above wild tomatoes also come in green, yellow, orange and purple. Beefsteak tomatoes are much larger and have a kidney-bean shape. They are useful in sandwiches. Cherry tomatoes are smaller than wild tomatoes are and often used for roasting or whole in salads as they are sweet. Plum tomatoes have a more elongated shape than the average tomato and have been bred for use in sauces and pastes (just pour boiling water over the skins, leave to blister for a minutes or two and remove the skins). San Marzano are a type of plum tomato considered by some chefs to be the most delicious tomato paste in the world. Roma is a plum tomato that is commonly known as an Italian Plum Tomato (despite being a Indian hybrid). Marmande tomatoes are a Spanish beefsteak variety with a ribbed shape that produce a star shaped pattern when sliced. Another ribbed tomato is Rebellion with an intense flavour and a good long shelf life.
And on the inside of a tomato?
In answer to the age old problem of whether tomatoes are a fruit or a vegetable, we're here to tell you, it doesn't really matter but in actual fact they're a berry! Tomatoes very in size from tiny cherry tomatoes (around 2cm diameter) to large beefsteaks (12cm in diameter). Beneath the skin is a layer of edible, juicy flesh, then beneath that a central pulp with small edible seeds. Plum tomatoes have fewer seed compartments than their round cousins.
What do tomatoes do?
Tomatoes are rich in carotenoids (900-1300 I.U. of vitamin A). These high levels of alpha and beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin give tomatoes cardioprotective qualities. Tomatoes have good amounts of vitamin C and some vitamin K. They are a low G.I. food, contain virtually no fat and have minimal amounts of protein. One glass of tomato juice contains 74% of your RDA of vitamin C! Tomatoes are also abundant in potassium which reduces water retention, they are also a good source of glutathione which helps the body to remove fat-soluble toxins.
Tomatoes are particularly high in lycopene (3mg per 100g) and it is what gives tomatoes their rich, red colour (yellow tomatoes contain less lycopene). The carotenoid lycopene found in tomatoes (and everything made from them), and has been extensively studied for its antioxidant and cancer-preventing properties. The antioxidant function of lycopene is its ability to help protect cells and other structures in the body from oxygen damage. It has been linked in human research to the protection of DNA (our genetic material) inside of white blood cells. Prevention of heart disease has been shown to be another antioxidant role played by lycopene. It strengthens the walls of blood vessels and removes cholesterol from the blood.
Lycopene is 4 to 5 times more prevalent in cooked foods, having tomato purée, sauce or as sun-dried tomatoes will give you more lycopene. Adding olive oil helps absorption also. In concentrated forms, tomatoes have greater amounts of B vitamins, in particular niacin, thiamine and riboflavin, and are a richer source of vitamin K than the uncooked ones. They also have higher levels of manganese, potassium, copper, phosphorus, magnesium and iron.
What do I do with tomatoes?
Now you know all about tomatoes, why not try them in one of our vegetarian recipes - available here. Try baking cherry tomatoes, or roasted tomato soup to get the benefits of lycopene, green and red tomatoes make wonderful chutneys, or try them on wholemeal toast with avocado for breakfast. They're amazing in a huge array of salads and Mediterranean dishes, pasta sauces, pizza toppings and sandwich fillings. Or combine with vodka and spices for the perfect Bloody Mary!
By Kim Betney