Nature Nugget – The Lowly Tomato

The tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) is a fruit that is most often used and eaten as a vegetable. The ancestors of the modern tomatoes were first domesticated in Central America and were small cherry types. Tomatoes first reached Europe shortly after the Spanish explorer Cortez conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, later to be renamed Mexico City, in 1521. The earliest mention of the tomato in European literature was found in an herbal written in 1544 about a yellow variety that was being eaten in Italy. The first tomatoes undoubtedly were first received in Spain where they were known as pome dei Moro (Moor’s Apple). Over the next few decades, several varieties were developed in the Mediterranean countries under the name of pomme d’amour (Love Apple), a probable corruption of the original Spanish name.

The tomato was not accepted well in northern Europe, especially England, where it was considered poisonous because it was a member of the nightshade family. In 1578, English authors referred to the tomato as a horticultural ornamental, and, by 1623, four color types were known. In 1692, the first cookbook to mention tomatoes was published in Naples. By 1700, seven types of tomatoes were mentioned in one article, including a large red type. In the 1700s, English cooks used tomatoes sparingly in the flavoring of soups, and a tomato recipe showed up in a popular British cookbook.

Colonists from Britain brought the tomato to North America as an ornamental that was most valued for its pustule removing properties. Early efforts by American merchants to peddle tomatoes were not very successful. Lingering doubts about the safety of the tomato were supposedly put to rest in 1820 when Colonel Robert Johnson announced that he would eat a bushel of tomatoes at noon on September 26 in front of the Boston Courthouse. Thousands of people showed up to watch him eat the tomatoes, expecting him to die, and they were shocked when he lived. Thereafter, tomatoes began to grow steadily in popularity in the Western World. By 1835, tomatoes were being sold by the dozen in Boston’s Quincy market. Tomatoes were first offered in a seed catalogue in 1847 by Thomas Bridgeman, who listed four varieties. By the late 1880s, several hundred cultivars had been named, and it was clear that the tomato had firmly implanted itself in western culture. Today, there are thousands of varieties in various shapes, sizes, and colors.

Recent news concerning tomatoes deals with the presence of lycopene, the major carotenoid found in red tomatoes. Similar to beta-carotene, lycopene is a potent antioxidant, which is a molecule that snuffs out cancer-causing free radicals. Studies show that people who eat a lot of tomato products show a marked reduction in cancer risk. The tiny current tomato (L. pimpinellifolium), a wild relative of the domestic tomato, contains over 40 times more lycopene than the domestic tomato and is being crossed with it to produce high lycopene cultivars. Tomatoes also rank sixteenth as a source of vitamin A and thirteenth as a source of vitamin C, among all fruits and vegetables, and are considered the most important provider of these two vitamins in the western diet. Tomatoes also contain significant amounts of beta-carotene, magnesium, niacin, iron, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, sodium and thiamine. A recent university survey ranked the tomato as the single most important fruit or vegetable of western diets in terms of overall source of vitamins and minerals.

The Lord has truly blessed us with giving us the tomato, not only for our nourishment, but also for health maintenance. “If people only knew the value of the products of the ground, which the earth brings forth in their season, more diligent efforts would be made to cultivate the soil. All should be acquainted with the special value of fruits and vegetables fresh from the orchard and garden.” Counsels on Diet and Foods, 312.