Tomatoes (Solanum Lycopersicum) are not only tasty but one of the main constituents of the modern diet due to their nutritional content.
You might classify tomato as a vegetable but actually, it is a fruit. Botanically the explanation for this is that they are formed from a flower and contain seeds. But nutritionists put them in the category of vegetables because of their culinary applications. Different cuisines around the world use them in varied forms like raw, pureed, in beverages, salads, or sandwiches. In our Indian food, it holds a special place in our day to day dishes as the main component of masala or tadka.
For modern food and diet-conscious people like me, tomatoes make for an ideal choice in the daily menu due to their zero fat & cholesterol content. They are rich in vitamins, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants. Tomatoes also have an important red pigment called lycopene, which drastically brings down the risk of getting cancer.
Interestingly this plant has had a strange past. It was found in its wild form in Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia areas of Andes, South America. It derived its name from the Aztec word tomato. Italy and Spain were the first ones in Europe to adopt it as a food. In France and Northern Europe, this was not grown for its fruit but as an ornamental plant. It was because the botanists recognized it as a relative of the poisonous, belladonna a deadly nightshade. Indeed, the roots and leaves of the tomato plant are poisonous and contain the neurotoxin solanine. It has been called with varied names like “love apples” by French as it was believed to have aphrodisiacal properties and “golden apples” by Italians. Despite its origin in South America, this plant did not gain popularity until the early 20th century. It was rather introduced to North America from Europe. It was introduced to Asia in the 19th century only. Today this crop is cultivated around the world, China being the world leader in producing tomatoes followed by India.
Tomatoes are commercially grown across most of the major states in India. In Maharashtra and Gujarat, the crop is grown around the year but in all the other states, tomato is a seasonal crop. We can get red tomatoes round the year in any store / at any vegetable vendor (sabziwala) across the country. Transportation & cold storage are the two key reasons for its ubiquitous presence and round the year availability, both these lead to another set of challenges. Ripe tomatoes travel far distances from the farm where they are produced to the consumers in the cities. On the way, it loses its nutrients, texture, and smell. Moreover, in order to transport tomatoes long distances, much of it is picked while still unripe. As per experts, tomatoes harvested green have 31% less vitamin C than those allowed to ripen on the vine. It is not just the vitamin C content that is reduced, the proportion of important antioxidants beta carotene and lycopene are also much lower in unripened tomatoes.
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All fruits and vegetables steadily lose vitamins while in storage also, even at optimal temperatures! So basically the tomatoes we finally get to buy are left with little of the original nutritional content.
In today’s world focus of agriculture is on enhancing the shelf life of any produce at the expense of taste and nutrition. Half the tomatoes in commercial farming don’t reach the consumer because of wastage during transportation. That is why mostly those varieties are picked for growing that can be easily shipped and are able to turn red even when unripe. They are uniformly round, hard and, many would say, flavorless – perfect for shipping and storing on-shelf – but not great for eating!
Here are some of the measures we as consumers can take to derive better nutritional value from tomatoes:
Fresh is best when it comes to taste and nutrition. So be aware of the source (fresh, cold storage) of tomatoes you are buying.
Refrigeration destroys the flavor of tomatoes so don’t store them for long and if needed, store them at room temperature. If you want to store produce items for a longer time, consider freezing them.
Cook minimally as water-soluble nutrients is destroyed with prolonged cooking time. If you do cook vegetables in water, those nutrients will leach into the cooking liquid, so try to use the cooking liquids in soups.