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Summer Food Series: The Terrific Tomato

Perhaps no food better represents home gardening in the summer than the tomato. Anyone who’s grown tomatoes has probably had the experience of wondering when their plant was going to start producing – only to suddenly find themselves with more tomatoes than they know what to do with. Luckily, there’s a LOT you can do with a tomato, and the plant itself has a long and rich history as part of food culture worldwide.

Tomatoes originated in Central and South America, but it’s unlikely you’d have recognized the original version of the plant as its fruit was only the size of a pea.

Wait, did I say fruit? Yes, tomatoes are technically, botanically, a fruit. In fact, a tomato is actually a berry. So why are they commonly classified as vegetables nutritionally? Their low calorie and sugar contents are more comparable to a vegetable than most fruits, but the real driving force behind their classification as a vegetable came from the US Supreme Court way back in 1893. The case was sparked by conflict over whether a tariff on vegetables applied to tomatoes. The Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes were vegetables and subject to the tariff because they were eaten with dinner, not for dessert as a fruit would be.

The development of the tomato from its original state to something more closely resembling what we think of today can be primarily attributed to the Aztecs, who first domesticated and cultivated tomatoes. In fact, the word “tomato” comes from the Aztec word tomatl to describe the plant.

Tomatoes were taken back to Spain in the 1500’s, but Europeans were widely suspicious of consuming them for the following 100-200 years. Tomatoes were sometimes referred to as “poison apples,” owing to their status as a nightshade vegetable and the widespread use of lead pottery for cooking. The lead pottery was problematic for cooking tomatoes because the acidity of the tomatoes caused the lead to quickly leach into the food, causing lead poisoning. Eventually, people figured out that it was the lead, not the tomatoes, causing the poisoning. This, along with a better understanding of nightshade vegetables (most of which are not harmful at all when consumed and prepared normally), led to a wider acceptance of tomatoes in European cuisine.

There are now over 8,000 unique types of tomatoes, and if you know what to look for you can easily tailor your tomato selection to match what you’re looking for in your dinner dishes. Keep in mind that many of the “standard” hybrid tomatoes found at the frontlines of tomato shelves in grocery stores are produced for uniform appearance rather than flavor and versatility. These tomatoes tend to lack the trademark sweet and umami (savory) taste combination that makes tomatoes so enjoyable. Here are some more unique types of tomatoes and what they’re known for:

  • Beefsteak: Large and grooved in appearance, beefsteak tomatoes hold their shape well when sliced, making them great for topping sandwiches.

  • Roma: Great for sauce due to their lower water content, yielding thick, rich tomato sauce when cooked.

  • Cherry: This miniature style of tomato has thin skin and combines well with hot pasta dishes.

  • Grape: A thicker skin makes this durable tomato perfect to snack on raw.

  • Brandywine: Prized for their great flavor, Brandywine tomatoes have grooved skin similar to beefsteak varieties.

  • Campari: Often sold still on their vines, Campari tomatoes are sweet and pair well with cheeses and caprese dishes.

Nutritionally, tomatoes are low in calories and decidedly not a high-sugar food despite some dubious online claims to the contrary. They’re a great source of vitamins C, A, and K along with potassium (which American diets are consistently deficient in). Lycopene, an antioxidant, gives tomatoes their bright-red color. Lycopene, like many vitamins, is fat-soluble and is absorbed better when cooked – as if you needed another reason to pair tomatoes with olive oil or mozzarella cheese.

If you’re growing tomatoes, know that they’ll need plenty of water, light, and heat to thrive. In Wisconsin, it’s best to start them indoors and move them outside once overnight temperatures are consistently above 45 °F. Tomato plants partner well with basil, carrots, garlic, and lettuce, while they dislike being planted near cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and corn. You should also avoid planting tomatoes in the vicinity of black walnut trees if possible. You’ll need to plan on utilizing a trellis or support structure of some kind to prevent the plant from tipping over as it reaches maturity. If all goes well, you should have tomatoes to harvest from late July into September.

Are tomatoes healthy? Absolutely. Despite all the online “noise” that can demonize almost any food, tomatoes are a safe bet nutritionally. It is worth considering, however, the nutritional differences between whole tomatoes and processed tomato products. Tomatoes are featured in everything from ketchup to salsa to pizza sauce, so how should we view the health value of these foods? There is, of course, room for these foods in anyone’s eating pattern, but I wouldn’t suggest counting these items toward your daily fruit and vegetable intake.

Why not? Consider the differences in potassium and sodium content. A fresh tomato has around 350 milligrams of potassium and 7 milligrams of sodium per cup. A cup of pasta sauce flips this, with over 1,000 milligrams of sodium and dramatically reduced potassium. Why does this matter? Potassium is under-consumed in the average American’s diet, and may be protective against hypertension (high blood pressure). Sodium is already over-consumed by most Americans, and this overconsumption may increase risks to vascular and heart health.

Finally, the recipes. Check out the below links for some ideas on how to put tomatoes on your family’s dinner plate:

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