Food profile: The tomato

The tomato, a fundamental ingredient in the Mediterranean cuisine. [1]

Well, after doing a few international relations and history related posts, I thought I would revert back to a food one, and then eventually maybe a football or fencing one to spice things up. Anyway, the last time you read a food blog by me, it was about the potato, so it is only right that I do justice with a tomato one as well. I will be discussing about the origin and some dishes concerning the fruit…or vegetable (that particular myth to be explored as well), the advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified (GM) and organic tomatoes or products in general, some important nutritional facts and the occasional interesting facts here and there. All constructive criticism for improvement is always welcome, and I hope you enjoy this blog!

Firstly, let us understand the origin of the tomato itself. Called Lycopersicon esculentum in Latin and in the Solanaceae vegetable group (including the chili, potato and eggplant), the tomato is of Mayan, Aztec, Andean or ancient Peruvian and Chilean origins (depending on which source we, as the reader believe) and was a fundamental ingredient in the Mesoamerican cuisine, only to be introduced to Western Europe in the 18th century. (Fernandez-Armesto: 78) [2, 3] But more importantly, with the word origin in mind, I think by understanding whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable would be interesting, especially as it is an incredibly important ingredient that is used profoundly by many cultures, whether it is simply used in your salads or more!

“Is it a fruit or vegetable?”
I think to answer this particular question, it is very important that we first understand the definitions of ‘fruit’ and a ‘vegetable’, and then eventually onto the tomato itself. Firstly, a ‘fruit’, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means “the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food”, whereas a ‘vegetable’ means “a plant or part of a plant used as food, such as a cabbage, potato, turnip, or bean”. [4, 5]

Again from the the Oxford Dictionary, the tomato is defined as “a glossy red, or occasionally yellow, pulpy edible fruit which is eaten as a vegetable or in salad. [6] Fair enough, a very controversial, two-sided definition here where the tomato can be considered as both a fruit and a vegetable. But why so? To botanists or plant specialists, to correctly identify a vegetable, it must have roots, tubers (a much thickened part of the stem deep inside the crop), stems and leaves, or in summary, a type of plant. [7] For example, potatoes, carrots and onions are all vegetables. Conversely, fruits should be identified when it has seeds, where commonly recognised vegetables are in fact fruits. For instance, cucumbers, squash and bell peppers. [7]

Why all the fuss? As a matter of fact, in 1883, tomatoes were brought from the West Indies and shipped to New York, under the rule of Hedden, the port administrator, who taxed the imported tomatoes as vegetables. [7] Farmers, however, protested and felt that tomatoes should not be taxed as vegetables, and be considered as fruits instead. As a result, the American Supreme Court brought this up as a law case, and eventually decided that tomatoes should be considered as fruits, whilst consumers should recognise the products as vegetables. [7]

The tomato in dishes 
Now, onto probably my favourite part of this article, where I can discuss about the importance and usage of the tomato itself. Similar to the soy sauce to the Chinese, the fish sauce to Indo-Chinese people (Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Laotian), the curry sauce to Indians and Indo-Chinese, the teriyaki to the Japanese, the sauce hollandaise or roux blanc to the French, the gravy to the British, the tomato is fundamental in Mediterranean cuisines, particularly in Italy with your pizzas, pastas, ragouts, salads, soups…

You can use tomatoes in many different dishes, and below are proper examples:

Generally speaking, the tomato is very important in many parts of Italy to make pasta sauces, minestrone (vegetable soup) and pizza bases. Interestingly, the Pizza Maghuerita was invented in Naples, in order to celebrate a new Italian ruler sinceNapoleon III in 1878, with the tricolour of the Italian flag being represented proudly to the Queen of Savoy through the green of the basil leaves, the white of the Buffalo mozzarella cheese and the red of the tomato sauce. [3]

Unlike their Indo-Chinese cousins, the Indians, especially the northern ones, make tomato-based curries. They add a rainbow range of spices and herbs into the sauce paste and fried on a medium heat. Serve that with some Basmatic rice and you got yourself a real treat. Mmhmm. A basic Indian curry recipe here for more reference:

I once watched a travelling show on the television, and learnt that unlike the Turkish version, the Greeks use Feta cheese in making their glorious and light salads. A bit of tomato, onions, olives, cucumbers, Feta cheese, the traditional quadruple of the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, perhaps even a bit of lemon or lime juice, mix and voilà. Bon appétit, monsieur et madame.

International cuisines 
On the international scene, the tomato is generally used as a garnish or a side-dish. For example, the tomato in hamburgers or roasted tomatoes that accompany your roasted vegetables and meats.

GM and organic products – the tomato 
GM tomatoes 
In 1994, the Americans created a new GM crop called the FlavrSavr tomato. This type of tomato was significant, because it did prolong shelf-life, but it did, unfortunately, also delay the ripening, which ultimately became substantial to consumers’ standards. [8] At one point, tomato purée made from GM tomatoes was a success, but it was not fully approved internationally by the American and European Health Organisations. That being said, new researchers are attempting to find a proper answer to resistance of pests, and enhancing tomatoes with more health benefits in the near future. [8] This is an advantage and key, because many properties of tomatoes can be altered in such a way to improve the quality of the tomato itself, and we, as the consumer, can eat healthily as well.

Naturally cultivated/organic tomatoes 
Stephen Kaffka, introduced organic gardening at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the late 1960’s, of which he still continues to this date. Many organic tomatoes are said to have twice the amount of flavonoids (quercetin and kaempferol) than normal tomatoes. This is an advantage and important, because these two important antioxidants and substances, which are essential in giving the tomato its renown dark red colour. [9]

Another advantage, according to Kaffka, is that organic tomatoes absorb the nitrogennaturally from animal excrete, which is mainly broken down by the natural microbes or bacteria found in the soil and eventually released into the plants themselves. This is different to artificial genetically modified products, which get their nitrogen from fertilizers. [10]

Furthermore, as it is a natural process, the procedure takes a lot more time and is not cultivated as fast as GM crops. This is further emphasised by Alyson Mitchell, a food chemist at the University of California Davis, who explains that with limited amounts of nitrogen, the plants are slower to grow. However, it does have more time to trace its food source and make natural nutrients for itself, namely the flavonoids. [10]

The tomato itself has many types of nutrients and it is believed that it is more beneficial properties than an apple. In the tomato, there are various anti-oxidants, one of which is called lycopene. This is fundamental, because this helps cell structure prevent the body from oxygen-free radicals, reducing chances of skin cancer and sickness. Moreover, it can reduce sensitivity to ultra-violet (UV) rays which are harmful to the skin and its cells. [11]

Another nutrient found in a tomato is Vitamin C, which increases the resistance against radicals developing in body, and also makes the body more immune from bacteria. This is key, as this reduces the possibility of us being sick. Furthermore, the tomato has Vitamin A found in them, which is found primarily from the flavonoid antioxidants. This is very important, as it can prevent the body from lung or oral cancers, and maintain essential skin membranes and bone health. Finally, the tomato has potassium, which is mainly used to maintain cell and body fluids which help regulate the heart rate. [11]

In conclusion, the tomato is a very versatile and ancient ingredient, which can be used in many types of sauces across many types of cultures. As controversial as this may be, in my opinion, the tomato should be considered as a vegetable, because it has been recognised that way in our daily lives in your salads or sauces. I have never heard of someone asking “have you eaten your tomatoes today?”, as opposed to your traditional apples and oranges as your main fruits. I also believe that that cultivators and botanists should always try to make the tomato as organic as possible, in order to make us not eat artificial or unhealthy substances and achieving consumer satisfaction. Finally, the tomato boasts quite a long list of nutrients that are essential for regulating and maintaining key body functions, beneficial to our skin, heart and bone health.

That is a wrap from me, folks. I hope you enjoyed your read here!
Bye for now! 🙂

[2] Fernadez-Armesto, F., 2003, The Americas: The History of a Hemisphere, London, Phoenix


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