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From the Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients
January 2006

Tomatoes and Tomato Products as Medicine
by Jade Teta, ND, CSCS; Keoni Teta ND, LAc CSCS; and Julie Sutton ND, LAc, CSCS

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"Let thy medicine be thy food." Hippocrates, the father of medicine, must have had the tomato in mind when he made this statement thousands of years ago. Now, in a world where drugs and supplements dominate, it appears that conventional medicine has forgotten the healing power of food. Modern science knows that food provides vitamins, minerals and calories for energy, but does it believe that food offers any real medical treatments? With the discovery of bioactive compounds in whole foods, science is beginning to understand the wisdom of Hippocrates. In no other food is this trend truer than the tomato.
Basket full of good health!
The tomato is known as a powerhouse of nutrition. It contains a multitude of vitamins and minerals that act to support health. However, it was not until the discovery of the carotenoid lycopene that modern science began to truly recognize the healing power of the tomato.

Lycopene has recently become the poster child of bioactive substances found in food that demonstrate health benefits. Among these benefits, the risk of prostate and breast cancer decreases due to lycopene.11 Lycopene appears to have a favorable effect in treating many other cancers such as: lung, stomach, colorectal, oral, esophageal, pancreatic, bladder and cervical cancer.11 Also, research has shown lycopene to lower the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and reduce heart disease,1,2,5,6 as well as increase the resistance to lung cancer and exercise induced asthma.7,9 There is even some evidence that lycopene in tomatoes may help to prevent cataracts,32,33 age-related macular degeneration34 and sunburns.31 More and more research appears to show that lycopene assists the immune system in protecting the body from illness.15

Despite all the wonderful health benefits of lycopene, there is one problem. The reductionistic model of isolating single compounds for drugs and supplements has been applied to the tomato and thus, lycopene. New lycopene supplements are hitting the market at an astronomical rate. Mounting evidence suggests that these lycopene neutraceuticals do not have the same impact as tomato food products.11,23 Once lycopene is isolated from the tomato there is risk of losing the other beneficial effects of this superfood. It is the whole tomato that provides superior benefit in regard to health. Lycopene acts synergistically with other tomato compounds to provide a unique medicine. The benefits of tomatoes and tomato products are often attributed to the carotenoid lycopene; however, isolated lycopene appears less beneficial than using whole tomato. Other compounds in tomatoes and tomato products that act alone or interact with lycopene are important.23,57 This suggests that the tomato may be "thy medicine," and lycopene is one of its powerful constituents.

History of the Tomato
The tomato plant is native to South America. It was introduced to Europe sometime in the 1500's by the Spanish. Soon after the tomato arrived in Europe it became a staple food of southern Europe. The Italians are especially known for their love of the tomato.35
The tomato belongs to the Solanaceae family which is also known as the "deadly" Nightshade family. Because the tomato belongs to the Nightshade family, and the Latin name for the tomato plant is Lycopersicon lycopersicum, which literally means "wolf peach," it has in the past given the tomato a false reputation of being toxic. In fact it is the tomato leaf that is toxic and not the fruit or tomato.

Lycopene, the Star Player?
The red color found in tomatoes is due to lycopene; therefore, the redder the tomato, the higher lycopene content. Thus, yellow and green tomatoes are relatively low in lycopene. One explanation of the powerful antioxidant effects of lycopene may be due to the fact that lycopene is not converted to vitamin A (?-carotene or ß-carotene). This suggests that red tomatoes do not have enzymes to convert lycopene to ?-carotene or ß-carotene.11 Therefore lycopene is available to act as a potent antioxidant in the body, which will promote health.

Lycopene is also found in other foods such as: watermelon, guava, grapefruit, papaya and apricots as shown in the table below.

Lycopene in various foods in mg/100 wet weight

Apricot, dried
Grapefruit, raw pink
Guava, fresh
Guava juice
Papaya, fresh
Tomato sauce
Tomato paste
Tomato soup, condensed
Tomato powder, drum or spray dried
Tomato juice
Tomatoes, fresh
Sun-dried tomato in oil
Tomatoes, cooked
Watermelon, fresh

Taken from: Clinton, -S.K.1998. Lycopene: Chemistry, Biology, and Implications for human health and disease, Nutrition Review,56(2)P35-51.

The lycopene found in tomatoes has been studied extensively in both humans and animals. Lycopene is now recognized as a powerful substance in the fight against cardiovascular disease and various cancers. One study investigated close to 40,000 women and their dietary habits, which revealed that the consumption of 7 to 10 servings of lycopene rich tomato products produced a 29% lower incidence of cardiovascular disease compared to women consuming the lowest amounts. This result was increased to 34% when women consumed two servings a week of tomato products that contained oil.1 Other studies also suggest that oil-based tomato products may be more influential than tomato products that do not contain oil, in promoting cardiovascular health.3,4

Part of lycopene's benefit against heart disease may be due to its antioxidant effects on cholesterol. Research shows that lycopene lowers LDL cholesterol oxidation.17,20 However, lycopene may not act alone regarding cardiovascular disease. Yamamoto et al. used an animal model which demonstrated antithrombotic (anti-clotting) effects of lycopene-free tomato products.2 This strongly supports the idea that lycopene is only one of many beneficial constituents in the tomato.

Lycopene has a strong anticancer relationship. As previously mentioned, lycopene has been shown to lower the risk of various cancers. The antioxidant nature of lycopene may affect cancer cells through a protective effect on cellular DNA, making it less susceptible to mutation.21,22 However, once again, the effects that lycopene alone has on cancer seems to be less significant than its effects from the whole tomato. This was shown in one animal study using isolated lycopene versus tomato powder.23 Animals that received isolated lycopene had a 72% death rate as compared to 80% of the controls.23 In contrast, the tomato powder resulted in a 62% death rate. 23 The results indicated more of a beneficial effect from a whole tomato product, tomato powder, than from lycopene alone in the protection against deaths from prostate cancer.23 This study also revealed that the low calorie, tomato based diet further increased the protection rate.23

From available studies, the tomato's role in health has become apparent. Most studies showing the benefit against disease involve the tomato with its constituent, lycopene. The lycopene supplementations used in most studies are usually done with whole tomato food concentrates. Only a few studies, like the previously mentioned one, have compared lycopene alone and whole tomato products in order to assess their respective health benefits.23 The cost-benefit ratio appears to favor whole food products over newly designed supplements. It appears that only the whole food tomato product can deliver the full context of nutrients and bioactive compounds to synergistically enhance the action of lycopene.

The Team Players in the Tomato
Along with lycopene, the tomato provides many other health-promoting nutrients. It is the synergy of the full array of compounds that make the tomato a powerful medicinal food. Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, a nutrient known for its antioxidant action.13,42,43 The tomato also contains an abundance of other carotenoids, including beta-carotene, making it a rich source of vitamin A.13,42,43 Some researchers believe it is the diverse carotenoid compounds in the tomato that enhance the action of lycopene.24 High intakes of vitamin C and beta-carotene may prevent atherosclerosis, diabetes, colon cancer and asthma.44-46 In addition, tomatoes are rich in fiber.13,42,43 Fiber works in concert with vitamins C and A to aid against the same previously mentioned diseases. While vitamins C and A deter free radical damage to cholesterol, the fiber in the tomato lowers the amount of cholesterol from the body, by helping the body to remove it more efficiently. Fiber in tomato slows gastric emptying and therefore absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, positively impacting diabetes. In addition to its indirect effects on blood sugar, fiber also assists in removing carcinogenic compounds in the colon. This beneficially impacts both diabetes and colon cancer in separate but complementary mechanisms from vitamins C and A. These actions have a bearing on obesity as well, and when the low caloric value of the tomato is factored in, the argument is strengthened.42

The tomato has even more nutrients for its fight against disease. Potassium, vitamin B6, folate and niacin are all present in tomato and work together to help fight atherosclerosis.13,51,52,54 High cholesterol and homocysteine levels are both risk factors for atherosclerosis and other diseases. Niacin has proven effects in lowering cholesterol levels and vitamin B6 and folate reduce high levels of homocysteine.51,54 The potassium in the tomato works against heart disease by lowering blood pressure.52

The tomato also contains nutrients such as: vitamin K, chromium and biotin. Vitamin K helps to build bone,53 while the latter two nutrients aid the body's ability to process sugar and fat, which may improve diabetes and nerve function.55,56 Riboflavin is another important nutrient in the tomato that helps with energy metabolism and fights against migraine headaches.25Other potentially beneficial phytochemicals in tomatoes include: phenylpropanoids, phytosterols, and flavonoids.35 These phytochemicals beneficially influence the body in many different ways that science is just now beginning to realize.
Unlike isolated supplements or drugs which have one or two main actions, tomato-based food products deliver many nutrients with multiple mechanisms of action.12,13 These manifold actions create a potent preventative medicine in the fight against aging and disease.

The Tomato is Better Cooked
The wonderful thing about the tomato is the many different culinary ways it can be used. It is widely used in salads, sauces, soups, and is the base of one of America's favorite condiments, ketchup. The tomato is without a doubt one of America's favorite health foods. Considering the amount of tomato lycopene consumed in the form of ketchup and pizza sauce, it makes one wonder what our rate of heart disease and cancer would be without this food.1,37 The amount of beneficial nutrients in the tomato is significant with liberal consumption of tomato-based products. It seems the best way to obtain the benefits is through more concentrated and cooked forms of the tomato. The Mediterranean diet includes high amounts of these foods. For example, Italians are known for their love of tomato sauce. They use it as a dip, on pastas, in salads and even as soup. Tomato sauce may be the perfect way to obtain the beneficial lycopene and other compounds from the tomato. Research shows lycopene to be most abundant in tomato sauces and pastes.30 In addition, the slow cooking process of tomato sauce further enhances the concentration and absorption of the tomato's lycopene and other nutrients.14 Healthy oils, such as olive oil added to traditional sauces also aid in the absorption and utilization of the tomato lycopene and other carotenoids.3,4 Rarely do we find a healthier, more economical means of protecting health than with tomato sauce.

In order to maximize the health benefits of tomatoes and tomato products, it is best to consume organic tomatoes and canned tomatoes in non-lead containers. Canned food products in the US do not contain lead anymore, so this shouldn't be an issue. Virtually all foods in the US with the exception of organic food have trace amounts of pesticides. There is mounting evidence that by avoiding trace amounts of pesticides, one's health will be improved.

Tomato Sauce: the Ultimate Medicine Cabinet
Tomatoes in the form of sauce deliver heart healthy and disease-fighting compounds. Spices cooked in tomato sauce also offer an increased opportunity to deliver medicine that has the potential of preventing disease. Garlic and oregano act as potent antimicrobial agents through the compounds allicin,58 thymol,59 and carvacrol.59 The cholesterol-lowering effects of garlic are also well-documented,26-28 and so are the antioxidant actions of rosmarinic acid found in oregano.27,28 The addition of rosemary provides even more rosmarininc acid, as well as other antioxidant compounds.28 Basil provides even greater antioxidant actions through the flavonoids orientin and vicenin.29 The volatile oils in basil provide additional antimicrobial effects.29 Also, eugenol (a phytochemical in basil) has COX-inhibiting activity which is a target enzyme of many pharmaceuticals.29

The addition of spices to tomato sauce provides a unique means of delivering medicinal compounds to the body. The sauce can be prepared in such a way as to tailor medicine to an individual. For example, someone with an infection would benefit from extra garlic, rosemary and basil; while someone with a history of heart disease may want to include all of the above with an emphasis on the antioxidant herbs, rosemary and basil. Also, signature sauces can add other medicinal foods such as onion60 and pepper.61 In this way, tomato sauce acts as a unique medicine cabinet with interconnected beneficial effects on the body.

As previously mentioned, the best benefits that tomato sauce has to offer relates to heart disease.6,12,20 The lycopene-rich tomato base with its synergistic nutrients is a powerful protector of heart disease. When the sauce is made in the traditional Italian fashion, with garlic, oregano, parsley and all the other spices, a tremendous amount of antioxidant, antithrombotic, and anti-inflammatory action is added.2,17,29 This list of medicinal actions would make any drug maker envious.

Considerations of the Tomato from a Chinese Medicine Perspective
Using food as medicine is an ancient tradition in China that dates back to more than three thousand years ago. In China, food therapy is known as Shi Liao.37 In fact, there are restaurants in China that specialize in serving medicinal foods, which are called, "Yao Shan" (medicated diet).37

The tomato has the properties of being sweet, sour, and slightly cold. It builds the yin, strengthens the stomach, promotes digestion, and cleans the liver.36,37 It is used in cases of diminished appetite, indigestion, food retention, anorexia, and constipation.36 Due to its cooling nature and affinity for the liver, the tomato relieves liver heat, thus helping to alleviate high blood pressure, red eyes, and headache.36

Possible Adverse Effects of the Tomato
Although rare, there are possible adverse effects of consuming tomatoes as there are in any food or medicine.

Tomatoes are one of the few foods that contain oxalates. The problem with oxalates in food is that they can form tiny little insoluble crystals with sharp edges which are irritating to tissue. People that suffer from kidney problems, gallbladder problems, gout, or rheumatoid arthritis may need to avoid foods with oxalates.38 Also, oxalates can impair calcium absorption. People who need to increase calcium through supplementation should consider avoiding foods rich in oxalates.

Tomatoes can also be associated with allergic reactions. If food allergies are suspected, then one may want to avoid tomatoes until the allergenic food is identified.

Another possible effect of eating high amounts of tomatoes or other foods with high amounts of lycopene is called lycopenaemia. Like other carotenoids, lycopene will produce a yellowish pigmentation of the skin if taken in excess.41 This may be only a cosmetic concern as there is no known documentation of other adverse side effects. However, one benefit to high levels of lycopene in the skin is its ability to act as a natural sunscreen, offering extra protection from UV-light.40

The Tomato Prescription
Hippocrates' famous saying holds truer today than ever before in history. The idea of prescribing food is a foreign concept to most healthcare providers. This is a disappointing fact due to the rising cost of health care and prescription drugs. The foods we regularly consume are devoid of nutrition, full of dyes and chemicals, and offer little in the way of bioactive medicinal compounds. Even during a trip down the local health food aisle you will be confronted with refined cereals and organic junk food. The fast paced, time-is-money society of today has little time to stop and think about what is or is not in food. Luckily, tomatoes and their products are some of the world's oldest "fast foods." Tomatoes can quickly be added to salads, soups and made into sauce. Research shows that the inclusion of cooked and concentrated tomato products consumed several times a week decreases incidence of disease.12 Tomato products such as sauce provide old world medicine with new world convenience, in a way that would make Hippocrates smile.

The Naturopathic Health Clinic of North Carolina
114 L Reynolda Village
Winston-Salem, North Carolina 27106 USA

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