Late summer and early fall are famous for their abundance of juicy, deep red tomatoes, inspiring nightly caprese salads and homemade pasta sauces. If you're not much of a cook, the flavorful, in-season tomato will forgive you: Just sprinkle a little salt and pepper on a slice and take a bite. If you ask me, there are few things more delicious.
Tomatoes used to fall under the category of other fruits and vegetables to me in that I thought they were straight-up healthy, no questions asked. Recently, though, there have been rumblings that tomatoes might actually be "bad" or "dangerous" for the human body (does the word "nightshades" ring a bell?).
We talked to nutritionists to find out if there's any truth to this, and if so, how careful we actually need to be. Here's what you should know.
What are Tomatoes, Exactly?
Here's a confusing fact that many of learned when we were kids: Technically, tomatoes are a fruit, because they form from a flower and have seeds, whereas vegetables don't have seeds. They're a member of the nightshade family, and nutritionists love them for their robust health benefits.
"Tomatoes are the major dietary source of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease (Increasing evidence from clinical trials suggests that supplementing with lycopene may help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol), and cancer," says nutritionists and Culina Health co-founder Vanessa Rissetto. "Observational studies have noted links between tomatoes — and tomato products — and fewer incidences of prostate, lung, and stomach cancers."
They're also bursting with beneficial vitamins and minerals. "In addition to lycopene, tomatoes are rich in vitamin C, folate, potassium, and beta-carotene in addition to lycopene," says chef and nutritionist Serena Poon.
Meet the Expert
Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN is a leading chef, nutritionist and reiki master, and founder of the method of Culinary Alchemy®, which is a combination of education, integrative and functional nutrition, and healing energy.
Are Tomatoes Bad For You?
OK, so if tomatoes are so nutrient-packed and can reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease (among other things), where does their bad rap come from? Poon notes that anti-tomato movement stems from the macrobiotic diet, which suggests avoiding nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, and tobacco.
"These plants contain alkaloids, natural substances generated possibly to protect the plant from insects," she explains. "Alkaloids can affect the human system in various ways, and can be toxic. Recognizable alkaloids include morphine, nicotine and solanine. Solanine is the toxin that causes potatoes to turn green and why you want to avoid such potatoes."
Supposedly, alkaloids cause inflammation in the body, particularly for people dealing with IBS or arthritis. But there's a catch. "There is no scientific evidence that substantiates this claim," says Poon. "In fact, there is actually evidence that nightshades like tomatoes can be anti-inflammatory. That being said, some people may have an inflammatory response to tomatoes or nightshade vegetables and those people would want to avoid them."
According to both Poon and Rissetto, you should feel free to eat as many tomatoes as your heart desires, because no — they're not bad for you. That being said, everyone's body is different, so if you notice any strange reactions when you eat tomatoes, you may be having a bad reaction to alkaloids.
"People who are allergic to the alkaloids in nightshades may experience hives, skin rashes, itchiness or nausea after eating them," says Rissetto.
And if you're prone to acid reflux, it may be wise to be moderate in your tomato consumption. "Tomatoes contain malic acid and citric acid, and consuming too much of these could make your stomach too acidic and cause heart burn or acid reflux," Rissetto notes.
Not dealing with any of those issues? Head to your local farmers' market — this is the most sustainable way to consume them, according to Poon — and dig in. "Tomatoes are low in carbs and fiber," says Rissetto. "Eat as many as you want."