Not so simply red
Ask anyone over a certain age what they think about tomatoes and the chances are they’ll say that they don’t taste like they used to. While there is no sauce more appetising than nostalgia, too often these people are right. Today’s perfectly formed, mass-produced supermarket offerings are certainly a far cry from the sweet-smelling tastes of summer found in the grocers of yesteryear. Gerry Hayman from the British Tomato Growers’ Association urges us to stick to British tomatoes, not just for the taste but also for health benefits
Four out of five tomatoes eaten in the UK today are imported, with their long journeys in the chiller effectively eliminating most of the delicious taste and smell that were there on the vine. Of course the good news is that tomatoes do not need to be little more than tasteless red adornments in a salad. Thanks to modern glasshouses, this precious fruit – from sugar-sweet baby plum and cherry varieties, to buxom beefsteaks and more besides – can be enjoyed, fresh and tasty, from March to October throughout Britain.
And don’t believe the myths. British tomatoes are not genetically modified. They are not picked green and ripened artificially and they are not doused with pesticides – very far from it. They ripen on the plant for the best flavour and nutritional value while natural means of pest control are used instead of sprays. Fortunately, commercially grown tomatoes in glasshouses are protected from diseases such as potato blight, the scourge of back-garden crops in our recent soggy summers. British tomato growers also employ some two million bumblebees a year to pollinate their crops.
Tasty and nutritious
Tomatoes contain a wider range of beneficial ingredients than almost any other food. These include vitamins A, C and E, phenolic compounds such as flavonoids (also found in apples, red wine and tea), minerals, fibre and two natural carotenoid pigments: beta-carotene and lycopene. A compound has even been isolated from the jelly around tomato seeds that reduces the risk of blood clots forming.
Lycopene is what makes ripe tomatoes red. The word comes from Lycopersicon, the old Latin name for the tomato, which means ‘wolf peach’, but no one is quite sure why. Medical research has shown that lycopene may be particularly effective in protecting us against cancer and heart disease, possibly through its antioxidant properties. In the US, a significant reduction in the risk of prostate cancer, for example, has been reported with the consumption of tomatoes and lycopene. It has also been shown to be effective in helping to protect the skin from UV damage from exposure to sunlight.
Research has also shown that fresh, ripe, home-grown tomatoes contain much higher levels of lycopene than imported long-life types.
Breath of fresh air
Fresh tomatoes can provide a breath of fresh air in ways that are unexpected. Liberally applied tomato juice is considered a sovereign remedy for counteracting the sulphurous smell of skunk, should you be unfortunate enough to bump into one. Although this is highly unlikely in Britain, tomatoes can also help should you suffer from bad breath – an unfortunate condition courtesy of volatile sulphur compounds that are caused by bacteria in the mouth.
Happily, compounds in tomatoes convert the sulphur compounds into odourless sulphides. Another explanation is that tomatoes contain metabolites called ionones, which are derived from the breakdown of the carotenoids. Ionones are important in perfumery and contribute to the luscious scent of flowers such as roses.