Tomatoes to Fight Pain

Although tomatoes are technically fruits, we tend to treat them like vegetables. A few other fruits we may consider vegetables are avocados, cucumbers, and olives. How can you tell? Fruit develops from the flower and contains the seeds of the plant, whereas vegetables are the other parts, such as stems, leaves, and roots.

An extremely beneficial component of tomatoes is lycopene, and no other food has a higher lycopene content than tomatoes. Lycopene showed potential in diminishing diabetic neuropathic pain through its ability to reduce sensitivity to pain, according to the European Journal of Pain, and in a follow-up report from the Framingham Osteoporosis Study of nearly 1,000 people, subjects with higher lycopene intake had lower risk of hip and nonvertebral fractures.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, an anti-inflammatory dietary mix that included tomato extract given as supplements to 36 overweight men suppressed body fat inflammation and improved endothelial function. And a study in the journal PLoS One showed that people with cardiovascular disease improved their endothelial function by 53% after taking 7 milligrams of lycopene daily for two months.

Lycopene is the carotenoid pigment that gives tomatoes their red color. Tomatoes with other colors also contain lycopene — the darker varieties just have more. Canned tomatoes are a good choice (organic and in BPA-free cans) because they are often picked and canned at the height of ripeness, and you can enjoy the health benefits year-round. Sun-dried tomatoes are loaded with nutrients and flavor because the drying process preserves them.

When using fresh tomatoes, store them at room temperature on the kitchen counter; refrigeration diminishes nutrients, flavor, and aroma. It’s best to choose vine-ripened varieties for both flavor and nutrition because commercially grown tomatoes are picked early and turned red in greenhouses. That’s why a beautiful, red, ripe-looking tomato can lack flavor — and nutrients.

Purchasing organic when possible is a good idea since tomatoes are 10th on the 2017 “Dirty Dozen” list of identified produce with the most pesticide residue. As published in PLoS One, organically grown tomatoes were found to contain 50 percent more vitamin C and more than double the antioxidant phenol compounds than commercially grown tomatoes. The tastiest and most nutritious organic tomatoes can be found at farmers’ markets, grocery stores that sell local produce, or, if you’re game, by growing your own.

How tomatoes are prepared significantly affects lycopene content. Because lycopene is released through heat, cooking tomatoes increases lycopene. In fact, researchers at Cornell University found that by heating tomatoes to just 88°F, lycopene content rose by 54%; at 15 minutes, it multiplied 170%. In addition, heating caused a rise in the total antioxidant activity, which is the opposite of what we often think about cooking. In the case of the tomato, cooking enhances its health benefits rather than decreases them. But don’t let that dissuade you from enjoying the taste of sunshine sliced on a sandwich or chopped in a salad. Summer is too short to miss such a juicy pleasure.

Want more tomato recipes? Try our Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes.

Susan Ojanen is an integrative nutrition coach in Bristol, Tennessee, and owner of She is passionate about helping clients worldwide achieve their health goals by creating sensible and maintainable lifestyle changes.

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