Botanically a fruit and culinarily a vegetable, the tomato belongs to the nightshade family, a group that includes potatoes, eggplants, paprika, chili peppers, tobacco and petunias. These plants are known for possessing a wide range of chemicals called alkaloids, some of which have medicinal or toxic properties. Among the common alkaloids are nicotine, cocaine, morphine and quinine. It’s the alkaloids in hot peppers that burn. The amount in nightshade foods is vastly different from that in the others of the family. Although it’s good to know that cooking reduces alkaloids by half, the ultra-sensitive among us may still have an uncomfortable reaction. For this reason we avoid the green spots and the eyes of a potato, where the heaviest concentrations are. It is believed, but not definitive, that food plant alkaloids may contribute to joint damage caused by inflammation and altered mineral status. Speculation suggests that nightshade alkaloids move calcium from bone and deposit it in soft tissue, thus adding to the discomfort of arthritis and other joint problems, like gout (Childers, 1993) (Slanina, 1990). From a gustatory perspective, we are elated to announce that tomato, eggplant and pepper alkaloid content is extremely low, in contrast to that of green potatoes and plant parts other than the tuber, the poisoning from which is rare (Friedman, 1997) (Davis, 2006).
Most of us can enjoy a daily dose of tomatoes, either in pasta sauces and juices, on sandwiches and salads, as soup or as dried… or even as ketchup. Tomatoes are not only low-cal and low-fat, but also high in anti-oxidants, especially lycopene, a carotenoid that protects the cardiovascular system from damaging free radicals. Although lycopene is chemically a carotene, it has no vitamin A activity because it cannot be converted to that vitamin. But that’s all right because its other virtues are to be heralded. Lycopene gives the tomato—and watermelon—its red color. As an intermediate working inside the plant, it helps in the manufacture of other carotenoids, including beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor. Lycopene isn’t an essential nutrient, but it sure is nice to have it in the diet, where it accumulates in the liver, adrenals and testes, and is found to help reduce (prostate) cancer risk (Giovannucci, 1995, 2002), to ameliorate the ravages of cardiovascular diseases by capturing free radicals (DiMascio, 1989), to mitigate osteoporosis and, now, to prevent stroke (Karppi, 2012).
Karppi and colleagues found that those with the highest values of lycopene in their blood were fifty-five percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those with the lowest. More than one thousand men between ages 46 and 65 participated in the study for an average of twelve years. From that group, 25 out of 258 men with the least lycopene had a stroke, while 11 of 259 with the highest levels suffered. After looking at stroke caused by a blood clot, the results were stronger. Those whose lycopene values were the greatest were fifty-nine percent less likely to have a stroke.
Blood vessels are part of the cardiovascular system. Any substance that can inhibit clogging the roadways is worth investigating. Medical literature shows that oxidized low-density lipoprotein is the most important first step of atherosclerotic disease and, therefore, the first step of cerebrovascular and cardiovascular events that include myocardial infarction and stroke. Scavenging singlet oxygen, which is the main player of the reactive oxygen species (ROS) that oxidize LDL, is a primary function of carotenoid anti-oxidants. Including these protective molecules in one’s diet to decrease LDL oxidation and adverse consequences is a prudent measure (Giordano, 2012). The carotid arteries of the neck carry blood to the head. Their thickness can be measured by an external ultrasound. By tracking thickness changes, doctors can determine the presence of, and evaluate the progression of, the atherosclerotic process. It is worth noting, though, that not all thickening is due to atherosclerosis. Finnish scientists discovered that men with the least carotid artery wall thickening also had the highest concentrations of carotenoids, including lycopene and cryptoxanthin (a relative of beta-carotene), leading to the conclusion that carotenoids such as lycopene are associated with decreased risk of carotid atherosclerosis (Karppi, 2011). Even earlier study found that low levels of lycopene are associated with higher danger of atherosclerotic vascular episodes (Rissanen, 2001).
Generally, a diet high in fruits and vegetables affords resolution to more physical problems than we pay attention to. Nutrition plays a significant role in the prevention of many chronic diseases. Plants contain substances that we have yet to discover. As for those substances about which we know a little, we know only a little and cannot ascertain the value of a single molecule without considering those molecules that may act synergistically. It has been established that patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke display markers associated with serious inflammation (Chang, 2005), and that attenuation of such may be realized in the presence of carotenoids, lycopene included. Some studies link oil-based tomato products, as seen in pizza and pasta sauces, with cardiovascular benefits (Sesso, 2003), while others see any tomato-rich foods as preventive (Rissanen, 2002).
Knowing that tomatoes can help to prevent serious disease is not a license to pile your rye bread high with processed cold cuts, such as re-amalgamated ham and ersatz cheese, slathered with hydrogenated mayonnaise, joined by super-saline pickles, chips and salads on the side. Now that you have some direction, see where it goes.
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