Tomatoes are not only incredibly tasty – especially if you grow your own – they’re a great source of vitamins, are good for your eyes and can even help protect against cancer. Here, nutritional therapist Tanya Borowski explores the health benefits of tomatoes.

Tomatoes belong to the family of plants called solanaceae (also known as the nightshade family). The beautiful red, green, yellow purple, brown and black hues in tomatoes – especially in home-grown ones – are down to a group of chemicals called phytochemicals, which offer an extensive list of health benefits.

Some of the best-studied phytochemicals in our tomatoes are:

  • Flavanones, such as naringenin
  • Flavonols, including rutin, kaempferol and quercetin
  • Hydroxycinnamic acids, caffeic and coumaric
  • Carotenoids, including lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and betacarotene

Inflammation-fighting lycopene

To highlight just a couple of the above, the carotenoid lycopene is one of my favourites. Lycopene fights inflammation by quenching free radicals, which are the by-product of an inflammatory response.

Lycopene also has a role to play in the prevention of prostate cancer through its ability to inhibit 5a-reductase, the key enzyme for the transformation of testosterone to its most active form dihydrotestosterone (DHT).

Studies suggest that this antioxidant is best absorbed when taken through foods that are heated than those that are raw, so cooking your tomatoes allows you to get the most out of these beauties. I recommend trying them in a pâté or purée.

The two other phytochemicals, which are carotenoids, that I want to highlight are lutein and zeaxanthin. Both are potent antioxidants and are best known for protecting the eyes from free radical damage. Your eyes are exposed to both oxygen and light, which, in turn, promote the production of harmful oxygen free radicals. Lutein and zeaxanthin mitigate these free radicals, so they are no longer able to damage your eye cells.

Whole body benefits

In addition to the phytonutrient antioxidants listed above, tomatoes provide us with a good number of vitamins and minerals, including excellent amounts of vitamin C, and good amounts of vitamins E and A, manganese, zinc and chromium. If you combine the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of tomatoes, you will find these benefits extend to many different body systems, including the cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, renal system (kidneys) and integumentary system (skin).

Get some tomato goodness into your meals

There are lots of ways you can integrate tomatoes into your diet. To make your own tomato paste, simply sauté a couple of cloves of peeled, chopped garlic and one peeled and chopped onion for a couple of mins in some olive oil until they are translucent. Add 8 to 10 chopped whole tomatoes and a teaspoon of dried – or several teaspoons of fresh – chopped oregano, basil, and any other herbs you enjoy. (I particularly love the combination of basil and rosemary.) Simmer for 30-45 mins. Remove from the heat, drizzle with olive oil and add sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Tomatoes are also a great addition to bean and vegetable soups. Purée tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and spring onions together in a food processor and season with herbs and spices of your choice to make the refreshing cold soup, gazpacho. Or enjoy a classic Italian salad with sliced onions, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese, drizzled with olive oil.

Tanya Borowski (tanyaborowski.com) is a fully qualified nutritional therapist and one of only 45 fully certified IFM practitioners in the UK to hold an institute for functional medicine certification. She has a specialist interest in working with functional digestive conditions, hypothyroidism, autoimmunity and hormone health, and was co-author of The Clever Guts Diet with Dr Michael Mosley. She offers online consultations, virtual retreats, and webinars.