It seems like there’s no end to what you can do with tomatoes. They’re everywhere in and on our food, from the sauce on your spaghetti and the salsa loaded on your chips to the ketchup dripping from your fries. And of course, a necessary part of any salad.
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“I think tomatoes are about the most versatile of all the fruits and vegetables,” says registered dietitian Lara Whitson, RD, LD. “They’re also loaded with antioxidants and other nutrients, so there are some real benefits to eating tomatoes.”
A fruit that’s often mistakenly called (and prepared like) a vegetable, tomatoes offer fiber, vitamin C, potassium, folate and more. And the bright red color of a ripe tomato isn’t just a feast for the eyes. The color comes from lycopene (giving tomatoes their red pigment) and beta-carotene (contributing the orangey glow), two antioxidants responsible for some of the health benefits of tomatoes.
Are tomatoes healthy?
One medium-sized raw tomato provides:
- 23 calories.
- 5 grams of carbohydrates.
- 1 gram of protein.
- Less than a gram of fat.
- 1.5 grams of fiber.
- 17 grams of vitamin C (19% of the daily value, or DV, recommended for adults).
- 10 micrograms of vitamin K (8% DV).
- 296 milligrams of potassium (6% DV).
- 19 micrograms of folate (5% DV).
Note that the nutritional values change depending on whether you’re eating tomatoes raw, juiced, in a sauce or other forms. The nutrition label will tell you what nutrients you’re getting per serving.
Whiston explains what tomatoes can do for your health:
1. Lower heart disease risk and cholesterol
Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the U.S. and worldwide. But researchers have discovered that a diet that includes tomatoes, which are rich in lycopene, helps reduce this risk. A review of 25 previous trials found that high blood levels of lycopene reduced heart disease risk by 14%.
Interestingly, how tomatoes are prepared can affect the level of healthy goodness your body takes in. The same research review compared the heart health effects of eating:
- Raw tomatoes.
- Tomato sauce.
- Tomato sauce with olive oil.
While all three forms of tomatoes lowered cholesterol and inflammation, those who ate tomato sauce with olive oil had the greatest positive change in heart health numbers. “Researchers think this is because olive oil helps your body absorb more lycopene,” says Whitson.
Tomatoes are good for your cholesterol levels, too. In a small study of 15 people, participants drank tomato juice (any amount) four days a week for two months. At the end of two months, the participants had lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol than when the study began.
2. Lower cancer risk
Some studies suggest that people who eat more tomatoes have a lower risk of lung, prostate and stomach cancer.
Researchers believe the lycopene and beta-carotene in tomatoes reduce your cancer risk. These two antioxidants have demonstrated anticancer properties in test tube studies using cells. “But it’s difficult to know for sure until we have full-scale human studies,” cautions Whitson.
3. Increase immunity
“While the research is mixed on whether vitamin C can actually prevent colds, we do know that this vitamin is essential to helping your immune system work well,” says Whitson.
One cup of tomato juice offers 45 milligrams of vitamin C — about 75% of an adult’s daily needs. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C helps boost your body’s immune cells that fight infection and prevent free radical damage to your healthy cells.
4. Improve sperm’s motility
Infertility in men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) may be due to several issues, including:
- Genetic diseases.
- Hormone imbalance.
- Injury to the testes.
- Low sperm count.
- Medications and cancer treatments.
- Substance abuse.
While tomatoes won’t affect most of those problems, they can help with one issue: Sperm motility, which is how well sperm can swim. If sperm can’t move efficiently toward the egg, fertilization can’t happen.
In one small study, 44 men and people AMAB who had infertility were divided into three groups:
- One group (the control group) did nothing.
- One group drank 7 ounces of tomato juice daily for 12 weeks.
- One group took an antioxidant capsule.
Researchers found that the tomato juice group showed improved sperm motility, which is a sign of better fertility. The antioxidant capsule group showed no signs of improved fertility.
5. Protect against sunburns
Tomatoes aren’t just good for your insides — they benefit your skin, too. A study found that people who ate 40 grams of tomato paste with olive oil daily for 10 weeks had 40% fewer sunburns. Researchers believe this ultraviolet (UV) protection is due to the lycopene in tomatoes.
Choosing and preparing tomatoes
You may have seen several different types of tomatoes, like cherry, beefsteak, Roma and heirloom. There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, known as cultivars.
Researchers don’t know much about the different nutritional properties or health benefits of individual cultivars, but follow these general tips for choosing and eating tomatoes:
- Go for red: If it’s lycopene content you’re after, go for the reddest tomatoes.
- Add olive oil: To increase your body’s ability to absorb lycopene, include olive oil in your tomato sauce.
- Stay local: For the best flavor, choose locally grown tomatoes because the commercial ripening process negatively impacts taste.
There are endless ways to eat tomatoes, which are members of the nightshade family of foods and spices, which also includes potatoes, eggplant and bell peppers. And no matter how you prepare or eat tomatoes, you’ll reap their health benefits.
Try these easy, delicious recipes for savory baked tomatoes, stuffed tomatoes and soups, as well as lighter dishes using raw tomatoes. Or make your own pasta sauce — and don’t forget to drizzle in some olive oil.