• Health – Tomatoes: juicy little red superheroes

    Tomatoes are everywhere, from salads, to pizzas, to stews, to sauces, to pasta.

    They’re also one of the most important non-starchy vegetables in our diet, grown by many subsistence and resource-poor farmers to supplement many South Africans’ staple diet of maize meal based foods, says Prof Dharini Siyakumar, Associate Professor at Tshwane University of Technology’s Department of Crop Science.

    As a contributor to a healthy , well-balanced diet, our little juicy red friends are rich in vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and dietary fibres. They’re also an important source of antioxidants, in particular lycopene.

    Lycopene is what gives tomatoes their red colour and unlike most nutrients in fresh fruits and veggies, it has a greater bioavailability after processing and cooking, meaning that you get the benefits, whether it’s simmering in your Bolognese or squeezed over your boerie roll.

    Over the years, through a number of studies it was found that the consumption of tomatoes can be linked to lowering the risk of heart disease, cholesterol and even bone disease such as osteoporosis. However, the heavyweight in the ring of research into the benefits of tomatoes in our diets, is the fight against cancer.

    In a study published in the British Journal of Medicine, researchers at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences found that lycopene – present in all red fruits and vegetables, but with highest concentration in tomatoes – intercepts the ability of cancer to make the connections that enables it to attach itself to the healthy blood supply of the body.

    Cancer cell growth is triggered when a process is initiated through the release of certain chemicals that links cancer cells with the healthy gatekeeper cells lining blood vessels (endothelial cells), thereby enabling the cancer cells to attach to the body’s blood supply. Laboratory experiments showed that lycoprene disrupted this critical linking process, preventing cancer cells from growing.

    Director of the research Dr Mridula Chopra said: “This simple chemical reaction was shown to occur at lycopene concentrations that can easily be achieved by eating processed tomatoes.”

    While all cancer cells use the same mechanism to tap into a healthy blood supply, the effect of this mechanism was emphasised by the researchers due to lycopene’s tendency to accumulate in prostate tissues.

    “The important thing is for sufficient lycopene to reach where it can matter. We know that in case of prostate tissues it gets there,” said Dr Chopra.

    However, she is quick to point out the limitations of their research: “I stress that our tests were done in test tubes in a laboratory and more testing needs to be carried out to confirm our findings, but the laboratory evidence we have found is clear – it is possible to intercept the simple mechanism some cancer cells use to grow at concentrations that can be achieved by eating sufficient cooked tomatoes.”

    The research done by Dr. Chopra and her team is far from conclusively proving that lycopene has an effect against cancer, primarily due to the lack of long-term research, as in the case of the health benefits of olive oil, but scientists agree that research such as this aids in the understanding of how lycopene affects the formation of blood vessels.

    Despite the storm surrounding tomatoes’ alleged superpower, everyone agrees that adding more tomatoes to our diets can only be beneficial in contributing to our overall wellbeing. This means you can literally chop, dice, slice, squeeze and peel to your heart’s content.