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Why Were 18th-Century Europeans Afraid of Tomatoes?

Updated May 16, 2024
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Most people eat tomatoes regularly, whether sliced fresh in salads or on sandwiches, or as an ingredient in pasta sauce or a pizza topping. They are considered a healthy food choice as they are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and the plant compound lycopene, which has been linked to heart health and even cancer prevention. These days, perhaps the most controversial thing about tomatoes is whether they should be classified as a fruit or a vegetable (more on that later).

But in 18th-century Europe, tomatoes had a fearsome reputation due to misconceptions about their perceived toxicity.

Tomatoes first reached Europe in the 16th century by way of the Spanish conquistadors, who brought back the seeds from Mesoamerica. However, the plants were originally grown ornamentally rather than for food. By the late 1700s, tomatoes had made their way onto the plates of some wealthy Europeans. Unfortunately, they were linked to the deaths of aristocrats who had eaten them on pewter plates with a high lead content. Due to their acidity, the tomatoes had absorbed lead and were blamed for the deaths.

The Italian herbalist Pietro Andrae Matthioli contributed to fears of this harmless fruit due to his classification of the tomato in the deadly nightshade family and as an aphrodisiac (it was widely known as the “love apple.”) And John Gerard’s Herball (1597) erroneously wrote that the entire plant was toxic, while in reality the fruit is safe to eat, though the leaves and stems contain some toxicity.

However, by the middle of the 19th century, the tomato had become a popular crop, with numerous varieties cultivated in the United States and Europe (though panic over the harmless tomato worm threatened to derail that popularity during the 1830s). The use of tomatoes in Italian cooking, especially pizza from Naples (invented around 1880), cemented the status of the tomato as an essential ingredient. It was made even more indispensable with the introduction of Campbell’s tomato soup in 1897.

The twisted tale of tomatoes:

  • The word tomato is based on the Nahuatl word tomatl. They were cultivated by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD.

  • Tomatoes were known in the British colonies in North America in the early 18th century, as evidenced by an entry in William Salmon’s Botanologia, published in 1710. But they weren’t widely considered food until at least a century later.

  • Today, the average American eats around 20 lbs of fresh tomatoes per year (and at least that amount of canned tomatoes).

  • In the botanical sense, tomatoes are fruits, while in the culinary and nutritional sense, tomatoes are vegetables. For the record, many other botanical fruits are considered culinary vegetables, such as avocado, cucumber, eggplant, pumpkin, and zucchini.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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