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updated: 7/6/2013 2:02 PM

Eat right, live well: Turn to tomatoes for flavor, nutritional benefits

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  • Tomatoes lend vibrant color and a variety of nutrients to a tuna-packed Greek salad.

       Tomatoes lend vibrant color and a variety of nutrients to a tuna-packed Greek salad.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 

Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit, specifically a berry. But that didn't stop the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 from deciding it's a vegetable when it came to how the plant was taxed.

No matter what the classification, tomatoes burst with health benefits.

Tomatoes can be considered a super food when you take into account the health benefits; variety of colors, sizes and tastes; its versatility in food preparation and the ease of including them in dishes of various regions.

Tomatoes can be served hot or cold, fresh or canned, juiced or sliced, diced or cubed; used in soup, salad, appetizers, snacks or side dishes or in dips, sauces or toppings. They can be vibrant red, yellow, orange, green and even stripped. And if that's not versatile enough for you, a tomato can even replace a serving dish when used as a bowl for, say, tuna, chicken or egg salad.

In general, tomatoes are rich in nutrients and low in calories, providing an excellent source of vitamins A and C, fiber, potassium and a good source of folate, niacin and B6. They also contain cancer fighting plant chemicals (phytonutrients) called lycopene, a fat soluble nutrient. The best ways to get lycopene from tomatoes into your system so it can do the most good is to heat the vegetable and serve it with a small amount of olive oil (a source of monounsaturated fat). When heating tomatoes use enamel-coated or stainless steel cookware to eliminate any bitter aftertaste from the fruit's acid reacting with and other metals.

Lycopene has been linked to a reduced risk of prostate cancer and, working in concert with niacin, vitamin B6 and folate, helps block the harmful (LDL) cholesterol from forming atherosclerotic plaque. The potassium helps lower blood pressure.

So, which color of tomato comes out on top for nutrient content? They all have their strong suits. Yellow tomatoes boast the lowest calories and the highest potassium and folate counts; green tomatoes hold the highest levels of vitamin C and orange varieties are highest in vitamin A. Red tomatoes, the most eaten variety, rank lowest in sodium and high in lycopene.

Whether you call them a fruit or vegetable include them regularly on your plate. Do not let summer pass without taking advantage of their fresh, juicy flavors and wealth of health benefits.

• Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian, works for the Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center and is a national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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