A tomato is the fruit of the plant Lycopersicon lycopersicum, which belongs to the nightshade ( Solanaceae) family that also includes bell peppers, white potatoes and eggplant. The word Lycopersicon means "wolf peach" in Latin, referring to the former belief that tomatoes, like wolves, were extremely dangerous. Tomatoes are in no way toxic, however. In fact, the numerous benefits of tomatoes add up to make the tomato a truly healthy food.
One of the benefits of tomatoes is that they are an excellent source of vitamins. One medium tomato provides almost one-half of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C, an essential vitamin that also acts as an antioxidant. Vitamin C helps the human body form connective tissue, access iron and keep gums and capillaries healthy.
Tomatoes also contain a lot of vitamin A, mostly through carotenoids such as beta-carotene. This essential vitamin helps maintain normal cellular growth, keeps hair and skin healthy, aids in bone and teeth development and promotes proper vision. The antioxidants from vitamins A and C travel through the human body and neutralize dangerous free radicals that could damage cells and cell membranes.
Other benefits of tomatoes include their high amounts of vitamin K, potassium, niacin, vitamin B6 and riboflavin. These nutrients work together to lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, maintain bone health, enhance blood-clotting abilities and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney stones. Vitamin B6 also helps convert a potentially dangerous chemical called homocysteine into benign molecules. High levels of homocysteine can directly damage blood vessel walls and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. In addition, riboflavin can reduce the frequency of migraines headaches, so sufferers might benefit from adding a tomato to their daily diets.
In lesser amounts, tomatoes also contain vitamin E, calcium, phosphorus, tryptophan and protein. A tomato is also a good source of chromium, a mineral that can help diabetics keep their blood sugar levels under control. In addition, tomatoes contain a high amount of fiber, which has also been shown to lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Several of these nutrients are thought to prevent colon cancer as well.
Perhaps the most important of the many health benefits of tomatoes is that they contain the ingredient lycopene, which is the pigment in tomatoes that makes them red. Lycopene also acts as an antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals that damage cells in the body. Growing research findings are reporting that the lycopene in tomatoes is a powerful inhibitor of prostate, colon, stomach, lung, breast and endometrial cancers.
To get the most of the many benefits of tomatoes, individuals should eat the brightest red tomatoes. The redder the tomato, the higher the amounts of lycopene and beta-carotene it contains. A yellow tomato has far less of these benefits and green tomatoes have none. Although uncooked tomatoes are healthy, more healthy compounds are released when they are cooked. In fact, tomato sauce and canned tomatoes are just as healthful as fresh tomatoes because high heat processing does not affect the nutritional value.