As a dietitian and nutritionist, I have often heard this question “Is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit?” If you have studied botany you know that all seed bearing plants are botanically classified as fruits. But this answer typically does not satisfy the questioner. I recently ran across an interesting historical note.
Did you know that in 1893, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the tomato should be classified as a vegetable rather than a fruit? At first glance one might ask why our highest court even cared. Actually the Court's unanimous opinion was rendered as part of the Tariff Act of 1883 which imposed tariffs on imported vegetables but not on fruits. The high court’s decision to use the ordinary meaning of the words fruit and vegetable, instead of the botanical meaning continues to reach into our life today causing people to ask the question “Is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit?” For those who still want an answer to this very good question, tomatoes are technically fruits but we eat them as vegetables.
Whether we call it a fruit or vegetable, the tomato holds a wealth of nutrients and healthy molecules. Tomatoes are one of those foods that are sometimes referred to as super foods because of their nutrient density. They are right up there with berries, beans, peas, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin, oranges, salmon, and nuts.
Tomatoes contain a family of molecules known as carotenoids (alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene) and the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferoll. These groups of molecules work by different mechanisms to reduce the formation of hardening of the arteries and of cancer cells in the body. So, people who frequently eat tomatoes tend to have lower rates of heart disease and certain cancers. When tomatoes are eaten along with healthy fats, like avocado or olive oil, the body's absorption of the carotenoids can increase by up to 15 times. According to a French study the tomato skin holds most of the flavonoids. To maximize the health properties of tomatoes, don't peel them. Tomatoes are rich in potassium, a mineral that lowers blood pressure. The health benefits of tomatoes are seen in all forms; fresh, canned, sauce or paste. Even ketchup can be included in this list!
East Texans do not have to be encouraged to eat tomatoes in June. We produce some of the most flavorful tomatoes in the world. There is a good reason why Jacksonville Texas has been called the tomato capital of the world, a title that until recently was uncontested. But for me East Texas tomatoes are still the best, no matter what those people in Mississippi say.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist and Director of Clinical Nutrition and the HC Polk Education Center at Memorial Health System in Lufkin. The Polk Center provides education on diabetes, heart disease and weight loss and sponsors monthly classes and support groups on healthy lifestyle. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service and the City of Lufkin, the Polk Center produces the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations featuring Tim Scallon and the celebrated Chef Manuel Marini. Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 46 cities and online at http://www.memorialhealth.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information. Call 639-7585 for more information.