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Tomatoes Deliver Flavor And Cancer Defense

The hot, summer months are a great time to enjoy fresh tomatoes. Enjoy them in green salads, chicken or shrimp salads, stuffed with tuna or simply on their own. They also make a wonderful addition to a heart-healthy and cancer-preventing diet, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames.

Tomatoes are loaded with a variety of important nutrients, including the antioxidants vitamin C and lycopene. Antioxidants are important parts of a healthy diet and help protect healthy cells from damage caused by free radicals, Reames explains.

Antioxidants have been attributed to preventing cancer, heart disease and other diseases. Free radicals are substances that attack healthy cells. When healthy cells are weakened, they are more susceptible to cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. Free radicals are produced by normal body functions, such as breathing or physical activity, as well as by smoking, exposure to sunlight and pollutants.

Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant and belongs to a group of more than 600 carotenoids. Rich food sources of carotenoids include red, orange, deep-yellow and some dark green leafy vegetables, such as tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and broccoli.

Lycopene has been the focus of much attention since 1995, when a six-year study of nearly 48,000 men by Harvard University found that men who ate at least 10 servings per week of foods containing tomato sauce or tomatoes were 45 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer.

The study also found that those who ate four to seven servings per week were 20 percent less likely to develop the cancer. That research was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Other research has found that lycopene also reduces the amount of oxidized low-density lipoprotein, known as bad cholesterol and therefore may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Clinical studies designed to answer questions about lycopene's role in preventing or treating disease are in progress. Research has shown that eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day lowers the risk of many cancers. Eating fruits and vegetables provides important antioxidant vitamins.

Reames says canned tomatoes can be more nutritious than fresh because they’re picked and processed in a manner that helps retain all the goodness. Scientists have also discovered that packaged, heat-processed tomato products, such as spaghetti sauce, contains more than six times more lycopene than the equivalent amount of fresh tomatoes. This is because the heat used during processing breaks down tomato cell walls, allowing the lycopene to be better absorbed into the digestive tract.

Because lycopene is fat-soluble, it is more easily absorbed if eaten with fat. To increase absorption, add a little olive oil to your favorite tomato-based dish.

According to the USDA, the average American consumes about 17 pounds of fresh tomatoes and 79 pounds of processed tomatoes each year.

When buying fresh tomatoes, choose those that have a deep, rich color. "This is one of the signs of a delicious tasting tomato and a substantial supply of lycopene," Reames says. Tomatoes should be well-shaped and smooth-skinned with no wrinkles, cracks, bruises or soft spots. Ripe tomatoes will yield to slight pressure and will have a sweet fragrance.

For additional information about vegetables and fruits, contact the LSU AgCenter extension office in your parish. For related family and consumer topics, click on the Family and Home link on the LSU AgCenter homepage at



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