Tomayto, Tomahto

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When I was a kid, I absolutely loved spaghetti. I ate it the messy way, of course: twirling the pasta around my fork until a giant noodle ball formed, then shoving said noodle ball into my mouth and leaving crusty remnants of red sauce in the corners of my lips. Kids love messy foods—or, they somehow manage to make non-messy foods into messy foods—and I was no exception. I just could not get enough spaghetti.

One day, someone tried to feed me lasagna. (I don’t recall exactly which family member attempted this feeding. Probably my grandmother.) To be brief, this did not go over very well with my childhood self. Although obsessed with spaghetti, there was absolutely no way I was about to eat some wavy-noodled, crumbly-white-cheese concoction that looked like steamy, deformed cake, despite my grandmother’s efforts to explain that it contained essentially the same ingredients as my beloved spaghetti.

Sigh.

As I grew up, I developed more mature taste buds and, arguably, a sense of reason. I got over my lasagna fear and actually began to experiment with other cuisine of similar variety (manicotti, chicken penne, that sort of thing).

However, one ingredient persisted to disinterest me: the tomato.

I know, I know: Tomatoes are pretty essential to all foods Italia, not to mention other foreign origins. I know. I ate pizza for most of my college-era meals and went through a phase during which I often dined out at Mexican restaurants specifically for the free chips and salsa.

The thing is: I don’t have an issue with tomato flavor. Smooth tomato sauce and non-chunky salsa are totally agreeable with my budding palate. You know how a kid might not eat an apple, but she’ll drink a carton of apple juice? That’s how I feel about tomatoes. Side note: that kid in the aforementioned example is modern-day me.

See, the flavor of tomatoes has never bothered me; it’s more of a texture preference. Tomatoes are slimy, and mushy, and squishing them between my teeth has just never sounded appealing.

A few weeks ago, I went out to dinner and ordered myself a chicken wrap that included, among other ingredients, tomatoes. I often find myself ordering things without tomatoes when I dine out, so this was not unusual. However, when my wrap arrived, I noticed that whoever had created said wrap had added tomatoes. I stared at it. My stomach grumbled. I was borderline famished, and I knew sending the wrap back to the kitchen meant I’d have to wait for the cook to remake the whole thing—you can’t really deconstruct and reconstruct a wrap without it completely falling apart—so I said to myself, self: just eat it.

Fact: I am stubborn. When it comes to food, and I decide I don’t like something, I just don’t like it. Sometimes there is a good reason for my distaste (apples are too acidic and make me feel like I’m going to vomit), and other times it really makes no sense at all (see: the great spaghetti/lasagna debacle).

So, as you can probably imagine, biting into this wrap and finding the taste to be juicy, refreshing, and sweet came as quite a shock to me. I didn’t know what to feel. Tomatoes had always been on my list of most-hated foods, right up there with pickles, mustard, and mushrooms.

I decided that day to embrace the tomato, as I have been telling people. I did some research and found that tomatoes are actually fairly good for you, so it seems the chef’s little mishap did me a favor and paved the way for me to incorporate this veggie into my diet.

But, what are these tomato-related benefits, you ask? And why should you embrace the tomato?

>>Tomatoes Help Keep Skin Healthy, Glowing, and Smooth<<
Tomatoes are rich in beta-carotene, an antioxidant that protects skin from sun damage. Living in Minnesota means that when the seasons begin to change, I’m searching for any and all excuses to get outdoors and soak up that hot summer sunshine. Sound familiar? Keep reading.

>>Red Hot Wrinkle Prevention<<
Lycopene, a phytonutrient that gives tomatoes their red pigment, makes skin less sensitive to UV light damage. Wearing sunscreen, glasses, or a hat is important to help shield the sun’s harmful effects—such as fine lines and wrinkles—but why not boost your skin health with a little help from the tomato?

>>Got Tomatoes?<<
In combination with vitamin K, lycopene helps support bone health.

>>Fall in Love<<
Tomatoes have tons of potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin E, which support heart health. Keep your blood pumping and your heart beating as summer heats things up.

>>…And Love Your Locks<<
It’s fairly common knowledge that vitamin A supports eye health, but did you know it also works to keep hair shiny and strong? Hair can get particularly dry and brittle in the summertime, so adding tomatoes to your diet is an easy way to give your locks some extra attention.

>>Fill Up, Slim Down<<
Tomatoes are considered a “filling food” because of their high water content—they add texture, bulk, and flavor to many different meals (salads, sandwiches, wraps) without the extra calories or fat.

>>Extinguish Fires<<
Bioflavonoids and carotenoids—known anti-inflammatory agents—work to relieve muscle, joint, and bone aches.

In conducting my tomato research, I found that some people are skeptical about the tomato’s benefits because of its categorization as a nightshade. Nightshade is a term commonly used for members of the group of plants in the Solanaceae family, which includes foods such as potatoes, eggplants, and red and green peppers. Nightshades produce alkaloids—namely, solanine—as a defense mechanism. If the plant feels threatened, it produces these chemicals to make the plant taste more bitter, with the hope that the predator will stop eating it. Some research suggests that solanine may disrupt enzyme production in muscle tissues after human consumption, increasing pain, inflammation, and stiffness. People may choose to avoid tomatoes for this reason.

Personally, I think variety is the key here. Including this veggie in some dishes will probably help more than harm, as long as the rest of your diet remains balanced and healthy. You’d have to eat quite a lot of tomatoes in order for them to be toxic to the body; I don’t think this will be an issue for me. Although I’m embracing the tomato, I wouldn’t say I’m in love with this veggie just yet. How will our relationship progress? Stay tuned!


>>Erica Tasto is the author of The Natural Suite blog and editor for Natural Solutions and Alternative Medicine magazines. Follow her on twitter @editorerica .