When my parents emigrated to England from Malta, they brought a fair slice of their home country’s culinary ways with them. Maltese cuisine has a hefty Italian influence, and during my childhood I remember my mother regularly knocking up tomato sauces to accompany bowlfuls of spaghetti. Two or three times a week, the family would tuck into this rudimentary dish, topped with pre-grated Parmesan cheese dispensed from a cardboard drum. To this day, I still get a sense of comfort from eating pasta with a red sauce. However, the attraction to this fare is not purely nostalgic; in recent years scientists have begun to see tomato sauce as a potential weapon in the fight against major conditions including heart disease and cancer. There is good reason to believe that the humble tomato has a lot to be proud about.
Much of the scientific interest in tomatoes has centred on a nutrient called lycopene. Lycopene is part of a family of nutrients called the carotenoids which includes the more infamous nutrient beta-carotene. Like beta-carotene, lycopene possesses antioxidant activity in the body. This property gives lycopene the potential to combat substances called free radicals that have been implicated in the processes that underlie chronic health conditions such as heart disease and cancer. In theory at least, increasing our intake of lycopene might reduce our risk of falling fowl to the major killers of this day.
Laboratory evidence suggests that lycopene might protect against clogging of the body’s arteries through its action on the waxy blood fat called cholesterol. While high levels of cholesterol are believed to increase the risk of heart disease, it is not the cholesterol per se that is the problem. Animal studies show that only when cholesterol becomes oxidised (damaged) by free radical molecules that is it then likely to bung up our arteries and increase our risk of circulatory diseases like heart disease and stroke. One of lycopene’s boons in the body is that it has the ability to protect cholesterol from oxidation. In one study looking at the relationship between diet and heart disease in 10 European countries, a decent lycopene intake seemed to afford considerable protection from heart disease.
Other evidence from around the World points to lycopene having a role in warding off a variety of cancers including those of the stomach, colon, rectum and ovary. There has been particular interest in the relationship between lycopene and prostate cancer, the incidence of which is growing faster than any other cancer in the West. One study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that consuming high levels of tomato and tomato-based products such as pasta sauce was associated with a reduction in risk of prostate cancer of about a third. This same study also showed that high tomato consumption appeared to cut the odds of developing more aggressive prostate cancer by a half.
While tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, there is some evidence that eating raw tomatoes is not the best way for the body to get hold of this precious nutrient. Lycopene is what is termed a lipid soluble nutrient, which means it dissolves much more readily in oil than in water. It appears that lycopene is best absorbed once it has been cooked with oil, such is the case with tomato-based sauces that hail from the Mediterranean. Which just goes to show; there really is nothing quite like your Mum’s cooking.