You Say Tomato, I Say … Marinara

The secret to squeezing the most out of this potent disease-fighter? It's in the sauce.
By Nina Martin

A couple of years ago, for the first time in memory, I decided not to grow my own tomatoes but to let my father do it instead. He was sick with emphysema, too weak to do much of anything except gaze at the TV or out the patio door at the garden he used to love to tend. Between the door and the garden was a bright porch, which I lined with seedling tomatoes in terra-cotta pots.

I figured that watching Sweet 100s twine their way around the trellis, then bud and bloom and grow heavy with fruit, would be good for his spirits. And it was. Sometimes, the high point of his day was trudging to the porch to pick the ripe fruit and deliver them to my mother for dinner. She would slice them into a salad or toss them into a sauce while he nibbled the reddest ones, savoring their sunny sweetness.

When I planted those tomatoes I was mostly thinking about my father’s mental health—the sheer joy that comes from making things grow and from feeling connected to the season, a season that always passes too quickly. These mood-lifting benefits are incalculable, of course, but what has health researchers most excited is lycopene, an antioxidant responsible for the tomato’s deep red pigment that turns out to be one of the most potent disease-fighters in the plant kingdom. It seems that lycopene is especially efficient at hunting down and neutralizing free radicals, unstable molecules that are formed when cells are exposed to ultraviolet rays, tobacco products, and other toxic substances—or even as they undergo the normal process of aging. If left un-checked, free radicals can harm the body in countless ways, causing everything from wrinkles to heart disease and cancer.

For disarming these menacing molecules, lycopene is perhaps two or three times more powerful than beta-carotene and ten times more powerful than vitamin E, according to University of Toronto scientist Venket Rao. And there’s another reason the Red Scavenger has achieved superhero status in the phytonutrient world: Whereas more delicate antioxidants (such as beta-carotene and vitamin C) are destroyed by cooking, heat and processing actually seem to make lycopene easier for the human body to absorb.

Wait a second. Does this mean that cooked—and even, gulp, canned—tomatoes are healthier than raw ones?

Believe it or not, at least when it comes to lycopene, the answer is yes. “During cooking and processing, you’re breaking down the cell walls of the tomato, which makes the lycopene more accessible to the absorptive cells in the digestive system,” says Mark Failla, a lycopene researcher and chairman of the Department of Human Nutrition at Ohio State University. Indeed, studies have found that people who eat heat-processed tomatoes have higher blood levels of lycopene than folks who like their tomatoes raw.

What’s more, adding a little oil or fat makes tomatoes—cooked or raw—even more healthful. “The presence of oil is extremely important,” Failla says, “because lycopene is very fat- and water-soluble. The oil droplets break it down so it can be more readily absorbed.” Other studies have shown that the longer a tomato is cooked, the more 
lycopene it seems to release.

“In our own work, we’ve cooked tomatoes at slightly below the boiling point for 60 minutes—basically the same thing Grandma does when she makes a sauce,” Failla says. “We have found that it approximately doubles the bioavailability of lycopene compared to the raw fruit.” It also doesn’t hurt that sauces are a concentrated form of tomatoes. Translation: Those Italian grandmas sure are smart.

In fact, scientists got their first inkling of lycopene’s powers when they noticed that Italian men, who eat tomato-based foods ten or more times a week, had significantly lower rates of prostate cancer than men in countries where the diets have less gusto. Since their initial gasps of Mamma mia, Harvard researchers have amassed convincing evidence that lycopene can reduce rates of prostate cancer by up to 40 percent, while other studies suggest that it can even help treat existing prostate tumors. Scientists at the University of Illinois in Chicago, for example, fed a small group of newly diagnosed patients three-quarters of a cup of tomato sauce every day for three weeks. The result: significant reductions in DNA damage to prostate cells and disease-fighting white blood cells, as well as decreased blood levels of a protein strongly linked to higher prostate cancer risk.

And lycopene’s protective benefits seem to extend well beyond the prostate. In a review of 72 studies, Harvard researchers found that consuming a serving or two of cooked tomatoes every day also seems to lower the risk of cancers of the breast, stomach, mouth, and lungs. For people suffering from respiratory disease, like my dad, the sweet red fruit should be a dietary staple: British researchers have found that eating cooked tomatoes at least three times a week was associated with a reduced incidence of lung disease in ex-smokers, while Israeli scientists found that men who added 30 milligrams of lycopene—the equivalent of about three-quarters of a cup of tomato sauce—to their daily diets improved their ability to fight off asthma attacks by 45 percent.

Lycopene also seems to decrease risk for another serious condition—heart disease—by lowering levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, inhibiting its oxidation, and slowing the production of artery-clogging plaque, Rao says. Then there’s the lycopene-bone connection: According to Rao, early evidence suggests that tomatoes can reduce the free radical damage that dissolves bone. Some studies have even shown that lycopene may improve fertility in men by as much as 38 percent.

Of course, those Italian grandmas don’t just dish out their lycopene in long-simmering sauces and soups: Come summer, they know there’s no better way to relish a tomato’s tangy goodness than to serve it sliced with a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of herbs. Researchers stress that despite the lycopene-liberating benefits of heat processing, raw tomatoes are good for you, too: “They still increase your lycopene levels,” Failla says, “just not as much as cooked ones.”

The key to lycopene’s goodness, it seems, is its redness. So skip Supermarketus blandium, that rock-hard, mealy, Styrofoam-flavored perversion of tomato-ness sold even in the deepest of winter. Those insipid greenish-pink pseudo-tomatoes don’t just taste awful; they deprive you of the healthiest part of the fruit. (That’s the wonderful thing about tomatoes: The more delectable they taste, the better able they are to help you fight disease.)

Red tomatoes also have more lycopene than yellow ones—ten times, in fact. Still, those tantalizing heirlooms that ripen to gold or even zippy green are plenty nutritious in other ways. Eaten raw, they contain nutrients your body craves (vitamin C, potassium)—some of which (notably C) are destroyed by cooking.

Whichever variety you choose, to truly appreciate tomatoes, I believe you should grow them yourself. That’s what I plan to do again this summer, in big pots on my back deck. Dad is gone now, but not my memories of him and how much he cherished life and its fleeting pleasures. Summer tomatoes made him happy—their blazing colors, the tang of their juice. They make me happy, too—happier now because they remind me of him. A jungle of Sweet 100s bursting with robust good health: What better way to remember, celebrate, and take special care of the people I love?

Cooking with Tomatoes 

Quick Garden Tomato and Garlic Pasta

The secret here is to cook tomatoes just long enough to bring out their nutritional strength, but not so long that they lose their fresh flavor. Adapted from The Chez Panisse Vegetable Cookbook.

3 large perfectly ripe tomatoes (red or heirloom varieties, or a combination), diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 small bunch parsley or basil (about 1¼4 pound), leaves chopped, stems discarded
1¼3 cup extra-virgin olive oil 
3¼4 pound thin pasta

Have all the ingredients ready by the stove. Put the pasta on to cook in rapidly boiling water.

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet until hot but not smoking. Add garlic and tomatoes; stir. Add the parsley or basil and cook for just a minute or two, until the tomatoes are warmed through and have started to wilt. Season to taste with salt and pepper and toss with the cooked pasta.
Serves 3 to 4

Ultimate Cream of Tomato Soup 
Turn canned tomatoes into the best tomato soup you’ve ever tasted. Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated.

2 28-ounce cans whole Italian tomatoes (not packed in puree), drained (reserve the juice) and seeded 
3 cups reserved juice 
11¼2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large shallots, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
pinch ground allspice
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
13¼4 cup chicken stock, canned or homemade 
1¼2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons brandy or dry sherry
salt and cayenne pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 450°, with rack adjusted to upper middle position. Spread tomatoes in single layer on foil-lined baking sheet with rim. Sprinkle evenly with brown sugar; bake until all liquid has evaporated and color begins to change, about 30 minutes. Cool, then peel from foil and set aside in a bowl.

In a medium saucepan with a non-reactive coating like Teflon, heat butter until foaming; add shallots, tomato paste, and allspice. Reduce heat and cook until shallots are soft, 7 to 10 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Stirring constantly, gradually add chicken stock, then tomato juice and tomatoes. Cover, increase heat to medium and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer about 10 minutes.

Strain mixture into a medium bowl; rinse pan. Transfer tomatoes and solids to blender; add one cup reserved liquid and puree until smooth. Place pureed mixture and remaining liquid into a saucepan, add cream, and cook over medium heat until hot, about 3 minutes. Off heat, stir in brandy or sherry, and season with salt and cayenne.

Keeps in refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, or it can be stored in freezer. (To make and freeze, wait to add cream and liquor until after thawing, reheat gradually, and serve.) Makes about 51¼2 cups.

How to Pick, Store, and Eat Tomatoes

More than many other fruits and vegetables, tomatoes depend on proper handling for much of their goodness. We asked the experts how to get the best flavor—and the biggest health boost. Here’s what they recommend:

Stay away from winter tomatoes, urges San Francisco chef and teacher Joanne Weir, author of You Say Tomatoes. You’ll get better flavor—and more lycopene and other nutrients—from summer fruit, preferably grown by organic farmers. “In the winter I would much prefer cooking with canned tomatoes,” she says.

Don’t be deceived by those “vine-ripened” tomatoes that come with the vine still attached; they’re usually greenhouse grown and ripened with the help of gas. “They look beautiful and perfect, and they may even smell ripe and wonderful, but that’s the vine you’re smelling,” Weir says. “The tomato itself is often really bland and disappointing.”

Buy only as many tomatoes as you plan to use within three or four days, and buy them as ripe as possible, Weir urges. This contradicts the advice of many other chefs, who say it’s okay—maybe preferable—to buy slightly under-ripe fruit and finish the process in a paper bag. Weir’s rationale: “Tomatoes ripened this way never taste as good as tomatoes that are picked ripe.” Look for fruit that is fairly firm, smooth, and heavy for its size. Her favorite red varieties include Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes and Early Girls.

Don’t store tomatoes in the refrigerator; cold temperatures kill their flavor.

Cook or serve tomatoes with a bit of fat or oil—olive oil is perfect—so the lycopene is absorbed more easily into the digestive system. Also, experiment by adding a spoonful of tomato paste to soups and stews that don’t ordinarily call for it. German researchers have found that the paste is especially rich in antioxidants.

Peel and seed tomatoes all you like; it doesn’t seem to decrease their nutritional value. The classic French method for peeling tomatoes—dunking them in boiling water for a minute or so, then slipping off their skin—can even slightly increase the bioavailability of lycopene in raw fruit. Weir likes to save the skins to make “tomato dust,” which she sprinkles on soups or onto homemade pasta for a bit of crunch and an easy lycopene hit: Place the skins in a 200-degree oven for 20 or 30 minutes until they are dry, then crumple and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Try oven-roasting tomatoes. Not only does it increase the concentration of usable lycopene, it makes even canned versions taste wonderfully deep and rich. After peeling and seeding fresh tomatoes, or draining canned whole tomatoes, lay them on a foil-covered or Teflon baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with a spoonful of brown sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.

Preserve summer’s bounty. Make tomato sauce or soup and freeze it until needed, or peel and seed tomatoes and freeze them for later use. If you like the flavor of dried tomatoes, do the drying yourself in the oven. Cut plum tomatoes in half and place cut side up on a baking dish. Sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt and let sit an hour, place in a 250-degree oven for four or five hours, then freeze. “They’re great in a tomato sauce, stew, or tapenade,” Weir says.

All the Redness of Tomatoes—in a Pill 
If you love tomatoey foods, you’re practically assured of getting a healthy amount of lycopene in your diet. Just 6 ounces of tomato sauce or juice yields the 6.5 milligrams a day found to be beneficial in many studies of prostate cancer patients. But if you don’t, lycopene capsules made from tomato extract seem to raise blood levels of the antioxidant as effectively as the fruit itself, says the University of Toronto’s Venket Rao. (Though the real thing, of course, will deliver other benefits, too.)

Recommended dosage: If you eat tomatoes occasionally and are in good health, taking 5 mg a day is fine, says Rao. People at risk for prostate cancer, lung disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or other conditions associated with low levels of lycopene might want to boost their intake to 10 or 15 mg a day.

Type of capsule: Rao and other researchers recommend capsules in gel form; Rao uses capsules containing Lyc-O-Mato brand extract in his studies.

Risks: So far there’s no research to suggest any health risks associated with taking too much lycopene. However, Rao says that most people won’t need more than 5 or 10 mg a day.

Can Tomatoes Be Trouble?
Considering what researchers have discovered about the wonders of lycopene, it’s ironic that tomatoes were long considered poisonous, at least in Britain and the United States. (They belong to the same family as deadly nightshade; also, the acids in their juices can interact with pewter dishes that contain lead, which in turn can leach into food.) But for some people tomatoes really may pose a problem: those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. 

In the 1940s, horticulturalist Norman Childers found that his arthritis symptoms improved greatly when he stopped eating all members of the nightshade family: tomatoes, green and red peppers, paprika, potatoes, and eggplant. The no-nightshade diet is still an article of faith in some arthritis circles, though independent research has never proven a link. Most arthritis experts say that if you have RA and you’re concerned about your diet, you could stop eating nightshade foods for a few weeks; if you feel better, great (although you might want to do more experimentation to make sure the effects aren’t related to other things, like medication or exercise). If your pain and inflammation persist, however, go ahead and eat tomatoes. There’s no better dietary source of lycopene, and the antioxidant may actually do you some good.