Cherry, egg, vine-ripened, ox-heart or teardrop; raw, grilled, oven-roasted or sun-dried; canned, bottled or in paste form – whichever way you eat them, tomatoes are a versatile ingredient of any healthy diet and a top super food. In terms of consumption, they are our second favourite vegetable after potatoes. Much of our intake is from canned whole tomatoes, tomato pasta sauces, tomato paste, tomato juice (GI 38), canned tomato soup (GI 38) and sun dried/semi dried tomatoes. And of course there’s that barbecue icon, tomato sauce or ketchup.
As with most veggies, you can tuck into them without thinking about their GI. They are so low in carbohydrate that they have no measurable effect on your blood glucose levels, but they do provide you with some fibre, vitamins, minerals and lots of lycopene, all for a mere 73 kilojoules (17 calories) in a medium-size tomato.
What’s lycopene? It’s a powerful antioxidant which has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer of the prostate and possibly cancer of the colon, bladder and lungs. Several studies have found that men who have the highest intakes of lycopene from tomato-based foods had a much lower risk of prostate cancer. And it appears to protect white blood cells, our body’s first line of defence against infection. Interestingly processed tomato products – sauces, soups and juices – provide the most lycopene. Cooking and processing softens the tough cell walls of the tomato and increases the availability of the lycopene.
Tomatoes are sometimes avoided by arthritis sufferers, along with other members of the nightshade family like capsicum and eggplant. Reasons given are that they are too ‘acid’ or cause a flare-up of swollen joints or stiffness. But it could really be due to their high natural treasure chest. Along with their flavour, tomatoes contain high levels of salicylates, amines and glutamates, three natural compounds that are often the villains in migraines, digestive upsets and other allergic-type reactions collectively called food sensitivity. As with other culprit foods, it seems if a food consistently causes problems for someone, then it’s best to avoid it (and it’s estimated that around 30% of arthritis sufferers have some sort of food intolerance). At this stage, however, there’s not enough evidence to ban tomatoes for everyone with arthritis.
Tips to add more tomatoes to your diet:
- Add sliced tomato to your sandwiches or melts – it’s a perfect partner to cheese or ham (add a little Dijon mustard as well).
- Oven-roast Roma tomatoes and stir though a barley risotto with basil, mushrooms and little parmesan. Or just serve them on toast!
- Throw 1 cup of cherry or grape baby tomatoes through a salad. Or use red ripe ones as the basis of that ever-popular Greek salad with steak or chicken.
Why not make your own Salsa di Pomodoro? This recipe is from Mary Taylor Simeti’s Sicilian Food – a delightful book on the food, traditions and recipes of Sicily that’s full of authentic recipes from the author’s family and friends on the island.
Ingredients: 1¾ kg (4 lb) fresh very ripe tomatoes, 1 medium onion, 4 sprigs parsley, ¼ cup olive oil, salt, sugar (optional)
Method: Wash the tomatoes and remove the stems, which if cooked would make the sauce bitter. Place the tomatoes in a saucepan with just enough water to barely cover the bottom of the pan, cover, and bring to the boil over a medium low flame. Simmer for 5 minutes, then drain well and cool slightly before passing through a food mill. Discard skin and seeds. Mince the onion and the parsley, and sauté in the oil. When the onion begins to turn golden, add the tomato puree. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, season to taste with a little salt, and if the sauce seems to acid, add a pinch of sugar. Makes approximately 3½ cups sauce.
Catherine Saxelby is an accredited dietitian and nutritionist and runs the Foodwatch Nutrition Centre. Her latest publication is The Shopper’s Guide to Light Foods for Weight Loss (available as a PDF). For more information, visit foodwatch.com.au.