As summer progresses and the days are hotter, we may find our tomato plants are heavy with beautiful, juicy tomatoes. We may start to wonder, is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? You may be surprised to know that both answers are the correct. The tomato is botanically a fruit because it contains seeds. However, it was deemed a vegetable in 1893 after the U.S. Supreme Court labeled it that way for tax purposes. Today, the USDA continues to define the tomato as a vegetable. Their dual definition goes to show how versatile the tomato is. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and each type has a unique flavor.
Tomatoes contain many healthy characteristics. A serving of tomatoes counts towards the recommended 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. They contain antioxidants, vitamin A, vitamin C and potassium, and are low in fat, sodium and calories. Lycopene is an antioxidant found in tomatoes that has been studied to have cancer-prevention traits for a few types of cancers, such as prostate cancer. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that contain lycopene. Because of the other healthy nutrients found in tomatoes, lycopene is best consumed in the form of a tomato.
Tomatoes can be used in a variety of ways: sautéing, grilling, eating them raw, or made into a sauce, to name a few. The options are endless, making them an easy, healthy addition to any meal.
Grape and cherry tomatoes have a medium to thicker skin that is ideal for cooking. These smaller tomatoes offer a juicy, sweet taste for a great treat right off the plant. How do we tell the two apart? A grape tomato is more oval in shape whereas the cherry tomato is round.
The beef steak tomato is a large, meaty and juicy tomato that holds its shape well. They are best used for making salsas, sauces or to top a burger or sandwich. Roma tomatoes are a meaty, dense tomato with few seeds. They work well for topping a salad, making a tomato paste, sauce or cooked into a stew.
Don’t let green tomatoes fool you; they are fully ripe tomatoes. They are tart and crunchy, perfect for desserts, juices, sandwiches and grilling. Heirloom tomatoes have been passed down from generation to generation. They tend to maintain their qualities from year to year, which creates a stronger flavor than standard tomato varieties from today. Each heirloom tomato is unique, differing slightly in size even on the same plant. Don’t let their odd shapes and colors or different names scare you away; try one today!
Canned tomatoes and tomato sauce offer the same nutritional benefits as fresh tomatoes. If you find yourself without raw tomatoes on hand, canned tomatoes are a great substitute. Look for low-sodium canned tomatoes and tomato sauce options to promote heart health. Sun-dried tomatoes are often more flavorful than canned tomatoes and tomato sauce. Try supplementing dishes that use tomatoes with sun dried tomatoes to pack in more delicious flavor and add more vegetables to your meal.
When selecting tomatoes to eat or use for cooking, look for tomatoes that are firm with shiny smooth skin. Stay away from tomatoes that have cracks or cuts, have dull coloring and are very soft. To store a tomato, find a clean and dry location. For best flavor, keep whole, uncut tomatoes out of the refrigerator. After tomatoes have been cut, store them covered, in the refrigerator to prevent harmful bacteria from growing.
As with all fresh produce, before preparing tomatoes to cook or eat, be sure to wash them well. Tomatoes and all produce could be contaminated at any point before they make their way onto your plate. This could cause you to become ill if not properly cleaned before consuming. Easily clean tomatoes under running water, rubbing gently with your hands.
Whether you call a tomato a fruit or a vegetable, this is a must to include in your weekly menu. Tomatoes are so versatile, you won’t have trouble adding them into your meals and snacks. If you use tomatoes often in your cooking, try a new type or prepare it in a different way. Don’t forget to pass on your favorite ways to eat tomatoes with your family and friends to encourage a healthy lifestyle.
Chickpea Salad with Tomatoes and Cucumber
Recipe from the American Heart Association
15.5 ounce can low sodium chickpeas (garbanzo beans) drained
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 chopped cucumber
2 stalks chopped celery
¼ small red onion, sliced
½ cup chopped cilantro,
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ tablespoon balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
Directions: Add all ingredients to large bowl, stir to combine.
Store leftovers in refrigerator.
Tara Frisbie is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke's hospital in Duluth.