Ketchup on your facts about tomatoes!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Author Martin Cheifetz

Are they a fruit or a vegetable? Are they a “to-may-to” or a “to-mah-to”? Do you eat them raw or processed? Are organic tomatoes worth the premium price? Should you keep them in the fridge? Why are they so popular and why should you eat them in the first place? Let’s take a look at one of the world’s most widely consumed, most frequently misspelled, and most beneficial foods - the tomato.

Regardless of which version of English you speak, the “to-may-to” / “to-mah-to” is actually a berry, and therefore a fruit, despite being sold and eaten as a vegetable. There are over 7,000 different types of tomatoes grown around the world, in a bewildering array of sizes, colors, shapes, flavors, and consistencies. It is believed that wild tomatoes were growing in the Andes mountains as well as Mexico, and brought back to Europe during the period of Spanish colonization of the Americas during the 1500’s. Tomatoes grow easily in warm climates and therefore were rapidly cultivated as Europeans colonized various parts of the globe.  

Tomatoes are commonly associated with southern European countries and the Mediterranean Diet, however the world’s largest producers are China, India, and the USA. While these 3 countries produce mostly for their own domestic consumption, tomato exports are led by Mexico, several EU countries (led by Dutch hothouse production), and then north African countries like Egypt and Morocco as well as Turkey. About 2/3rds of the world’s tomato production is for fresh produce, with the remaining 1/3rd for processed varieties like tomato paste, various formats of canned tomatoes and pre-made sauces, and much to the chagrin of sneering gourmets, ketchup.

Tomatoes are one of the rare foods where the processed varieties may actually outperform the fresh option from both the flavor and nutritional aspects. At the risk of over-generalizing, mass-produced, highly traveled, fresh tomatoes are often flavorless because they are picked too early, artificially ripened, and refrigerated for ‘freshness’. Tomatoes are easy to grow, but they are difficult to cultivate. Humans love tomatoes, but so do insects and other animals. As such, tomatoes are often sprayed with pesticides or grown in hothouses, but from both the taste and nutritional perspectives, you are substantially better off buying vine-ripened, organic tomatoes, ideally unrefrigerated, and ideally from your local farmer’s market, (or from your own garden if you are so inclined). Once you’ve tasted a fresh, local tomato, you’ll never go back to the standard supermarket variety.

While you’re not going to put a canned tomato into a fresh salad or on a sandwich, cooking with canned tomatoes is often the best choice.  Once you find a brand whose flavor you like, you can often find a full range of delicious canned/bottled tomato products that are extremely versatile to cook with and may offer higher health benefits than the fresh varieties. N.B. By canned/bottled tomato products, I am referring to 100% pure tomatoes, not prepared pasta/pizza sauces that are loaded with sugar, additives, preservatives, etc.

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