A tomato a day keeps cancer at bay

MANY A Mediterranean would weep at the common British habit of making a salad with tomatoes straight from the fridge — they really taste of nothing other than cold water, and I think they're one of the reasons why some people don't love salads.

By Jane Clarke

Published: Mon 23 Apr 2007, 10:25 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 11:47 PM

tomatoOf course, for food spoilage reasons we need to keep some salad leaves and salad ingredients in the fridge, but tomatoes — which amazingly before the early 1800s were actually feared because they were thought to cause disease — enter a new taste league if you let them settle to room temperature, by leaving them out of the fridge for a good half an hour before you slice them.

Another way to bring out the wonderful sweet tomatoeyness is to roast them — it's incredibly easy to do and only takes about 30 minutes. Just place them washed and whole if they're small, or cut them in half if they're larger, in a non-stick roasting tin, drizzle with a little oil, pop in a pre-heated 170c oven and roast until caramelised. Roasted tomatoes are delicious spread over toasted Italian bread such as ciabatta or focaccia, or made into a simple supper with pasta, fresh basil and grated parmesan cheese. If you have some frozen peas or broad beans, throw a few handfuls into the pasta for the final minute of cooking, then drain with the pasta and stir in the oily roasted tomatoes, the basil, the cheese and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper.

I am also a fan of just having a few roasted tomatoes with fresh buffalo mozzarella and a rocket salad for lunch — the intense tomato flavours cut across the creaminess of the cheese, which is bliss. Of course, there is a huge variety of tomatoes in the shops, from the paler — and I think nine times out of ten tasteless — variety, to the vine tomatoes, which because they've been left on the stalk for longer tend to have a deeper flavour.

Over the past few years there have been plenty of headlines linking tomatoes with health issues, mainly the prevention of certain cancers, particularly of the prostate. The main reason tomatoes have been linked with the prevention of prostate cancer is that they contain a powerful antioxidant called lycopene, which is found in abundance in tomatoes and tomato products. Studies have found that lycopene may help reduce the risk of some cancers and heart disease.

In a study of over 40,000 health professionals, Harvard investigators found that men who ate more than ten servings of tomato-based foods daily — such as cooked tomatoes and tomato sauce — had up to a 45 per cent lower risk of developing prostate cancer.

The benefits of lycopene were even more pronounced in men who already had prostate cancer. In another study, researchers looked at blood levels of lycopene and found that the risk of developing prostate cancer, especially more aggressive forms, decreased with increasing blood lycopene levels. Lycopene is better absorbed by the body when tomatoes are processed by being made into tomato puree, soup, sauce or ketchup, because it is bound to the tomato's cell structure and the processing releases it.

In a raw tomato you only glean about 3mg of lycopene per 100g, although this figure can be higher in some varieties. The Santa cherry plum tomato, for example, can have some of the highest lycopene levels, and the amount is also affected by ripeness: the deeper red and riper the tomato, generally the more lycopene. In tomato puree you get more than ten times the amount of lycopene per 100g you would in a raw tomato, and tomato ketchup tots up almost 16mg per 100g, with tomato juice around the 10mg mark.

Of course there are also the delicious sun-dried tomatoes — amazingly, it takes 9kg of fresh tomatoes to make 500g of sun-dried. You can also increase what is known as the bioavailability of lycopene — this means how easy it is for us to absorb and use — by cooking the tomatoes in a small amount of fat or oil, because lycopene is fat-soluble.

I always roast them with a good dash of virgin olive oil, or another healthy oil such as rapeseed or hemp. One reason the Mediterranean diet is particularly healthy is because tomatoes and olive oil are often found together on the menu.

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