The Best Tomatoes For Your Health
Among our most favourite things to grow are tomatoes. A tomato plucked fresh off the plant, warm and perfectly ripe, will beat a grocery store tomato every time, hands down! There is a reason that garden tomatoes taste better - they are better. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, freshness goes a long way to improving taste. But those garden tomatoes are also more nutrient dense, and subsequently, better for your health.
Nutrient dense foods are those that are high in nutrients but low in calories. They also contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. When it comes to health, nutrient dense foods are the all-stars.
Back to those delicious, fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes…
Now, lest you think a tomato is a tomato is a tomato, I’ll clarify things for you: not all tomatoes are equal. The type of tomato and the manner in which it grows affect the nutrients available to you when you eat it. Let’s take a look at some of the science behind this fact.
First, organic tomatoes have a higher level of phenolic compounds than conventionally grown tomatoes (1, 2, 3). Phenolic compounds contribute to the proven health benefits that come from eating a tomato. The phenolic content, a measure of the flavanoid, antioxidant, and flavour intensity, is higher in organic tomatoes than conventionally grown tomatoes, up to 139% higher (3). The hypothesis is that organic tomatoes are exposed to more environmental stress, which prompts the plants to fortify themselves against the stress through higher levels of sugar, vitamin C, and antioxidants (3). So, organic tomatoes are more nutrient dense than conventional tomatoes.
Second, field tomatoes contain more beneficial properties than tomatoes grown in a greenhouse because the greenhouses block UV light, which reduces the flavanol content in the fruit (4), not something you want to skimp out on. Flavanols contribute to better vascular function, decreased blood pressure, and improved immune response. In contrast, tomatoes that grow in the open air contain four to five times more flavanols (4). When choosing between an organic tomato that is grown in a greenhouse or in a field, the open air tomato is more nutrient dense.
Third, commercial tomato growers, be they organic or conventional, greenhouse or field, are not growing a tomato for flavour or nutrient density. They are growing a tomato that will endure the harvest, survive the transport and still look good sitting in the grocery store. Food quality and nutrition decrease with the amount of fertilization, irrigation and other environmental means that are utilized by industrial farming (5). Essentially, these tomatoes are grown for high yields, and as a result, have reduced nutrient concentrations; the variability in the tomatoes’ genetics is diluted to accommodate the industrial food chain.
Heirloom tomatoes, though lower-yielding, still retain the nutrients that make tomatoes, well, tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated varieties that existed prior to the green revolution (pre-1940). Heirloom tomatoes are not hybrids designed by food scientists for commercial growing. If you are looking for a tomato loaded with beta-carotene, flavonoids, carotenoids, lycopene, polyphenols, and more, you want an heirloom tomato grown with as few food miles as possible. If you purchase that tomato from a farm market and note it’s more expensive than other options, rest assured, you are getting what you pay for. How much is your health and nutrition worth to you?
The Kid Test
“The best indicator of quality is children. If they really like to eat raw produce you know you are on the right path” (6) I found this tidbit on thetomatoproject.net and it rang true for me. We make sure to grow some small, easy pick-and-eat tomatoes in our gardens for the little ones to snack on. At least once a day during tomato season I will see them climb in among the tomato plants to search for a ripe morsel. Our favourites are the heirloom varieties Matt’s Wild Cherry and Yellow Pear.
Another way we enjoy eating our tomatoes is in a simple tomato and basil salad. When making a meal and needing something to accompany the main dish, I’ll ask someone to scamper out to the garden and pick a handful of tomatoes, the more varieties the better, as well as a small bouquet of basil leaves. Chopped up and mixed with some mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, we’ve got a delicious fresh salad. You can find the recipe here.-------1. Borguini, R. G., Markowicz Bastos, D. A.,Moita-Neto, J. M., Capasso, F. S.and Ferraz da Silva Torres, E. A. (2013). Antioxidant Potentials of Tomatoes Cultivated in Organic and Conventional Systems. Brazilian Archives of Biology and Technology, 56, 521-529.2. Universidad de Barcelona. (2012, July 3). Organic tomatoes contain higher levels of antioxidants than conventional tomatoes, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 7, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120703120630.htm3. Oliveira AB, Moura CFH, Gomes-Filho E, Marco CA, Urban L, Miranda MRA (2013) The Impact of Organic Farming on Quality of Tomatoes Is Associated to Increased Oxidative Stress during Fruit Development. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56354. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0056354 4. Alarcon-Flores, M. I., R. Romero-Gonzalez, J. L. M. Vidal and A. G. Frenich. (2015). Systematic Study of the Content of Phytochemicals in Fresh-cut Vegetables. Antioxidants (Basel), 4, 345-358.5. https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/nutritional-content-zmaz09jjzraw 6.6. http://thetomatoproject.net/about-us/nutrient-testing/57-what-is-a-nutrient-dense-tomato