By Christine Zellers, MPP, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, Family & Community Health Sciences
New Jersey boasts a real gem in its sweet and savory Jersey tomatoes that are not only delicious but nutritious. Growing these tasty veggies in a home garden provides enjoyment as well as contributing fiber, vitamins, and minerals for better health. While tomatoes do have seeds and can be considered fruit the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies them as vegetables because they are eaten like a vegetable. Despite the disputes of tomatoes’ food group classification one thing is clear, tomatoes are a delicious and nutritious delight in New Jersey in the summertime.
The benefits of tomatoes are numerous in preventing chronic diseases like cancers, heart disease, and diabetes. The good fiber content of tomatoes provides regularity whereby preventing constipation and chronic diseases. It is recommended that adults eat 25-30 grams of fiber per day however the average American only eats about 15 grams per day. An average sized tomato has about 1.8 grams of fiber and while that is not a great deal it does help to contribute to the recommended daily allowances for adults. The fiber in tomatoes is insoluble fiber which means it is water insoluble and moves through the digestive system relatively unchanged encouraging normal movement in the intestinal tract. Adding tomatoes to salads, sandwiches, omelets, and wraps will boost needed fiber intake.
The lycopene in tomatoes contributes greatly to the nutritional value of the vegetable. Lycopene gives tomatoes and other red and pink fruits and vegetable beautiful color and assists in heart disease prevention and skin protection. Likewise, it has antioxidants that protect against free radicals. Too many free radicals in the body can lead to cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease. Lycopene’s ability to reduce free radicals supports cholesterol levels by lowering bad cholesterol (LDL) while improving good cholesterol (HDL). Lycopene can delay cataracts, improve bone health, delay age related brain disease and reduce pain from nerve and tissue damage. Cooked tomatoes have been shown to provide higher levels of lycopene than raw tomatoes which only allow 4% absorption of lycopene. That is not to say that eating cooked tomatoes is the only way to enjoy them. When cooked and pureed in products like sauce or ketchup the beneficial fiber in tomatoes is decreased making this cooked version of tomatoes less fibrous than an uncooked tomato despite being higher in lycopene. In any case eating tomatoes in a variety of ways is best to balance out the health benefits you get from the vegetable. A variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and diary can prevent disease, eating one food is not the magical cure for anything, rather eat a well-balanced diet to maintain better health.
Canning will extend the life of a garden and Jersey tomatoes for enjoyment all year long. When canning any vegetable or fruit it is important to use a reliable source such as the USDA, National Center for Home Preservation or University/Extension Website, the site should end in .edu or .gov. Trusted sources such as these stay up to date on the latest science about preserving and use practices that are safe for food handling. Using a source that is not scientifically based could easily contaminate the product with a bacteria making those who eat it ill. Make sure not to use blogs or sites that alter or change tested recipes and do not use shortcuts or untested recipes. pH levels in tomatoes are different because there are new varieties out today, using an old recipe that might have been handed down for generations could put the preserved tomatoes at risk for food borne illness. Acidity is critical when preserving tomatoes, make sure to follow instructions exactly. If a tested recipe calls for spices use the amounts indicated, adding too much of an ingredient could cause bacteria growth. Canning quality is important, only use ripe undamaged produce for best results and to create a product that will last well beyond the summer season.