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Want Some Home-Grown Lycopene?

Finally, we have an unmanageably bountiful crop of tomatoes. After many years of averaging about 3 small tomatoes per plant in Chicago’s painfully short summers, and then a couple of borderline crop failures adjusting to heat and sandy soil in South Carolina we have succeeded! How many would you like? I can drop them off on your front porch later.

What excites me so much about growing tomatoes is that I consider the standard grocery tomato to be a worse tasting representation of the actual food of any fruit or vegetable in the produce section (and I have eaten mangos as crunchy as raw potato and tart as a Granny Smith apple). Of course, it’s all about personal taste, but in my book a “real” tomato must have that eye-opening acidic bite which apparently only develops if the fruit is left to ripen on the vine. And, I don’t mean to start the “fruit or vegetable” debate about tomatoes with that comment.

What are the health benefits of phytonutrients?

What I do mean to start is you taking advantage of these few months when “real” tomatoes and many other locally grown fruits and vegetables are available in your garden, at farmer’s markets, and maybe even at your super market. Colorful foods are not just a pretty face – the coloration itself demonstrates, in many cases, the presence of healthy “phytonutrients.”

In tomatoes, it’s lycopene. But, plants and their fruits contain a wide range of substances which protect it from sunlight, infections and even drought. Often these compounds have antioxidant and other effects that benefit humans, for instance by inhibiting the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (oxidized LDL promotes the buildup of plaque in arteries). Phytonutrients of various types have shown protective benefits against some cancers, macular degeneration, aging, general inflammation, stroke, and diabetes. And, nearly all plants foods have them – even colorless onions contain the powerful antioxidant quercetin.

But, while there’s no doubt these compounds can play an important role in our health, the exact mechanisms are complex. In many studies the beneficial effects of the whole food (i.e. tomatoes) is markedly greater than the benefit of the phytonutrient given as a supplement (i.e lycopene). This suggests that there may be other components of the food, like vitamin C in tomatoes, that work in combination the phytonutrient. Also, note that different foods give us different compounds – xanthophylls in dark greens, beta carotene in carrots and cantaloupe, anthocyanins in blackberries and eggplant, hesperidin in citrus fruits, catechins in tea, epicatechins in dark chocolate, genistein in soy, and many others.

Dietitians like me trumpet a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and phytonutrients are one primary reason. And, there’s no easier or better time of year to follow that advice than summer. Oh, check your porch later – I’ll leave those tomatoes in a bag.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • diabetesmom
    5 months ago

    Thanks for this. I needed to hear this

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