You already know that tomatoes are actually a fruit and that they’re equal parts delicious and versatile, but you might not know about the food’s nutritional benefits. The abbreviated explanation: Incorporating tomatoes into your meals and snacks can help you work important nutrients into your diet. Read on to learn more details about the benefits of tomatoes and the best ways to enjoy the fruit as a regular part of your diet.
What Are Tomatoes?
Native to South America, the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is a fruit from the nightshade family, according to the International Journal of Plant Genomics. Many varieties of tomatoes exist (think: Roma, beefsteak, and cherry), and although tomatoes are botanically a fruit, they are typically prepared like a vegetable. Tomatoes can be eaten raw, cooked from fresh, or processed (such as canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and sun-dried tomatoes), and they offer some important vitamins, minerals, and health-promoting plant compounds, according to a review in the journal Biology.
Tomatoes are low in calories, carbs, and fat, but rich in important micronutrients. They’re also packed with powerful plant compounds such as the carotenoid (a type of antioxidant) beta carotene and lycopene (another type of carotenoid found in the skin of tomatoes). Other antioxidants found in tomatoes include chlorogenic acid, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
On average, one cup of chopped, fresh tomato (about 180 grams) provides the following, according to the United States Department of Agriculture:
- 32 calories
- <1 gram of fat
- 1.5 grams of protein
- 7 grams of carbs
- 2 grams of fiber
Health Benefits of Tomatoes
When enjoyed as part of a well-balanced diet, tomatoes help you meet your nutrient needs and reduce your risk of certain health conditions. Below, more details about potential tomato health benefits you can score from eating the food.
May Improve Heart Health
Tomatoes have been associated with a wide range of heart health benefits, including decreased risk of blood clots, improved blood pressure, and reduced markers of inflammation and oxidative stress. Lycopene supplementation has also been shown to help reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and tomatoes are a top source of this compound.
Consuming adequate potassium in your diet is important for supporting healthy blood pressure and overall heart health, and tomatoes are a good source of potassium with 427 milligrams per cup. (That works out to more than one quarter of the adequate intake of potassium for adult females.) “Eating more foods that provide both potassium and antioxidants is a heart-health bonus, since they provide nutrients that optimize blood flow throughout your body and ensure tissue oxygenation of all organ systems,” explains Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, author of Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked)consultant, and host of the podcast On the Side.
Additionally, tomatoes contain folate, with 27 micrograms of the nutrient per cup (about seven percent of the recommended dietary allowance of folate for females who aren’t pregnant). Folate helps balance the amino acid homocysteine, which, when not managed, has been linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. So, incorporating food sources of folate (such as tomatoes) is another way to benefit heart health.
May Support Skin Health
The benefits of tomatoes might affect your skin. “Tomatoes contain the antioxidant lycopene, which helps prevent certain types of cancer and also helps protect your skin from UV damage” by neutralizing free radicals, explains Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, an inclusive plant-based dietitian in Stamford, Connecticut, and owner of Plant Based with Amy. Studies have associated supplementing with tomato-based beverages and foods with protective effects, and carotenoids in general have been shown to offer photoprotection. (That said, you still need to wear sunscreen.)
Another way tomatoes can benefit skin is that the vitamin C found in tomatoes can help promote skin integrity by supporting the formation, structural maintenance, and function of collagen, adds London. In other words, the vitamin C in tomatoes plays a part in maintaining firm, smooth-looking skin.
May Protect Against Cancer
While more human studies are needed to confirm and understand the “how,” tomato intake and the intake of carotenoids such as lycopene have been associated with decreased risk of some cancers, including prostate, breast, and skin cancers. Also, it seems that getting these antioxidants from food rather than supplements is the way to go, as supplementation has occasionally been associated with adverse health outcomes, such as with lung cancer, and pro-oxidant effects.
Can Support Eye Health
The carotenoids in tomatoes (lutein and zeaxanthin) are important for eye health. The two carotenoids accumulate in the retina in the back of the eye, aka the macular region. They work as antioxidants to protect against free radical damage to the cells in this region and are thought to help protect against conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and retinal detachment. They’ve also been shown to play a role in protecting against the harmful effects of blue light.
Promote Gut Health
The benefits of eating tomatoes also extend to your gut health. At 95 percent water and with over a gram of fiber per serving, tomatoes provide a gut-healthy combination of fluid and fiber. This helps promote regular digestion, which is vital for supporting healthy immune system function and mental health as well.
Potential Risks of Tomatoes
Aside from tomato allergies, you may need to avoid tomatoes if you’re sensitive to the tangy acidity in tomatoes. However, “I’ve often found in practice that those battling less severe sensitivities with heartburn do better with fresh tomatoes vs. concentrated sources (like tomato paste, tomato sauce, and canned tomatoes),” says London. “If you’re concerned, start by integrating them into meals slowly and in smaller amounts — say, 1/4 cup per serving.”
Additionally, those on low-potassium diets (for example, those with advanced chronic kidney disease) may also need to limit their tomato consumption to small amounts.
How to Buy and Use Tomatoes
“Arguably, the thing I love now about tomatoes is how easy they are to use in just about anything and everything to add instant flavor, fiber, and key nutrients to your meal,” says London. “As a naturally-occurring source of glutamic acid, tomatoes provide the perfect umami- flavor to anything you’re making.”
London recommends choosing the specific type of tomato based on your cooking needs, flavor preferences, and budget. For example, there are types you can choose “for snacking (like whole cherry tomatoes), and ones you’ll use for salads and sauces (like plum or Roma tomatoes),” she says.
When shopping for fresh tomatoes, “you’ll want to look for firm tomatoes that don’t have any bruises, cracks, or sunken spots,” says Gorin.
You also want to take seasonality into account. In many parts of the world, including the US, tomatoes just don’t taste the same in wintertime. That’s when you want to lean into canned and jarred tomato products. There is a higher concentration of lycopene in processed tomato products than in fresh tomatoes, so you won’t be missing out on the benefits of the carotenoid.
How to Cook with Tomatoes
In addition to tomatoes’ benefits for your health, the food is highly versatile. You can enjoy them raw or cooked and in an endless variety of recipes. Something to keep in mind: Cooking tomatoes may help enhance the availability of certain nutrients in the fruit. “Research shows that the lycopene from cooked tomatoes is more easily absorbed by the body compared to raw tomatoes,” says Gorin. “You can enjoy cooked tomatoes in a quiche or a pizza.” Additionally, consuming lycopene with fat also enhances absorption, so don’t be shy with that olive oil.
Here are some recipe ideas to get you started:
In the salad. Raw or cooked tomatoes are delicious in a salad. They pair with a variety of other flavors and add a burst of flavor and color as well as extra nutritional value.
On a sandwich or toast. Adding sliced tomato elevates a simple sandwich or toast by making it more nourishing and flavorful. Cooked tomato products are also wonderful for adding savory notes.
As part of a snack platter. Tomatoes pair beautifully with hummus, cheese, crackers, olives, and other snack items as part of a snack board.
In a sauce. You can make your own tomato sauce using fresh or canned tomatoes. London also recommends doctoring up a jarred tomato sauce with fresh cherry tomatoes. “You’re automatically adding more fiber to your meal by adding extra veggies, and maximizing flavor from a condiment so many of us already love,” she says. Both fresh and canned tomatoes are also perfect for making your own salsa.
In soup. Fresh or canned tomatoes or tomato paste add umami notes to simple soups and stews, making them taste even richer. Canned or fresh tomatoes can also be used to make gazpacho, a cold soup that’s super refreshing on hot days.
In cooked dishes. Tomatoes can be added to baked goods, eg, savory breads and muffins, or you can bake them into casseroles with other veggies and your favorite proteins. You can also add tomatoes to omelettes and frittatas or make shakshuka by cooking eggs in tomato sauce.
In juice. Green juice gets most of the attention, but don’t overlook the benefits of tomato juice to your health. You can DIY or, if purchasing already made, choose an option with a lower sodium content.