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Before we get to how great tomatoes are for you, let’s settle one thing: Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable? Actually, they’re both. Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit. But as a practical matter, everyone uses tomatoes as a vegetable. So, in 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the matter and ruled that the tomato is to be classified legally as a vegetable, botany be darned.
Whatever you call them, tomatoes are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, but the superstar of the bunch is a member of the carotenoid family known as lycopene.
Lycopene & More
Research shows that lycopene is associated with significant reduction in prostate cancer risk. In 1995, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a study conducted by Harvard University researchers looking at the eating habits of more than 47,000 men between 40 and 75. They found that those eating 10 servings or more a week of tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato juice, and even pizza had 45 percent fewer prostate cancers than men who ate fewer than two servings a week.
Evidence indicates that lycopene also protects against lung and stomach cancers, and preliminary research shows protection against pancreatic, oral, colorectal, breast, and cervical cancers. Lycopene also protects the heart against oxidative damage. And a review published in Nutrients showed that supplementing with tomato extract can reduce blood pressure.
Besides lycopene, tomatoes contain a variety of other powerful phytochemicals, including lutein—also found in the retina of our eyes and necessary for healthy vision. The lutein in tomatoes may help prevent macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in older adults, and may help improve vision. Lutein may also help prevent or slow the thickening of arteries known as atherosclerosis.
Get the Most Out of Your Tomatoes
The anticancer properties of lycopene are especially beneficial when consumed with fatty foods, such as avocado. Why? Because carotenoids are fat-soluble nutrients. To get maximum absorption, you need to eat them with a little fat. My favorites for tomato-based dishes or salads are either extra virgin olive oil or Malaysian palm oil.