Heirloom Tomatoes & Good Health

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I have long advocated for growing and consuming heirloom vegetables, particularly tomatoes.

The definition of an heirloom seed or vegetable may have different meanings to different people. Basically, an heirloom is an old variety that has been passed down from seed to seed, year after year, usually through many generations. Heirlooms are ‘open pollinated’, meaning they are naturally pollinated by the wind or insects such as bees. Heirlooms also breed ‘true to type’, meaning they come back looking exactly like their parents. For example, a black heirloom tomato grown from the seed of it’s black heirloom tomato parent will look exactly like it’s parent. That is not necessarily the case with mass-produced, hybrid type tomatoes generally found at the supermarket. My favorite analogy is that a tomato grown from the seed of a hybrid tomato may come back looking like an aunt or an uncle instead of the parent!

Phytonutrients, such as Lycopene, are compounds found in vegetables such as tomatoes. Lycopene is thought to have health-protecting qualities. Scientists believe that Lycopene may help prevent some forms of cancer such as prostate cancer. There is research that suggests Lycopene may also help protect us from some forms of skin cancer. In addition to fighting cancer, research suggests tomato consumption may also slow lung decline and may also help repair lung damage from the long term effects of smoking. Now, that’s not to say that eating more tomatoes will counteract all of the negative health effects of smoking or that smokers should continue smoking while increasing their tomato intake in hopes of preventing disease. Quitting smoking reduces our risk for getting cancer and other forms of COPD. The research simply implies that eating tomatoes may help repair some of the damage caused by smoking.

The best way to obtain Lycopene is by eating foods that contain Lycopene instead of taking Lycopene as a dietary supplement. Tomatoes have large amounts of Lycopene. Tomatoes are delicious and nutritious when eaten raw. However, cooking tomatoes prior to consumption allows tomatoes to release even more Lycopene for our bodies to absorb.

Tomatoes are not only an excellent source of Lycopene, but also an excellent source of Vitamin A and Vitamin C. In fact, one medium-sized heirloom tomato contains about 20 percent of our daily recommended intake of Vitamin A and about 40 percent of our daily recommended intake of Vitamin C.

Tomato seeds should be sowed about 1/4 - 1/2 inch deep when the soil is at least 70 degrees. Tomatoes should be spaced about two to three feet apart. Two feet is sufficient for compact, bush like tomatoes (These are ‘determinate tomatoes’). However, long and vine-like tomatoes (These are ‘indeterminate tomatoes’), should be spread about three feet apart. When growing tomatoes in containers, remember, bigger containers are better! Bush-type (Determinate) tomatoes grow best in ten gallon or larger pots. Vine type tomatoes (Indeterminate) grow best in twenty gallon or larger pots.

In closing, growing heirloom tomatoes from seed benefits our health, our kitchens, as well as our wallets! Our health may benefit from the potential cancer preventing effects of Lycopene. Our kitchens will benefit from the tasty meals we will be creating (How about a home-made pasta sauce or shrimp creole sauce made from heirloom tomatoes? You will never want store bought tomato sauce again!) We will also save money by not having to spend a pretty penny purchasing heirloom tomatoes from someone else.

Clifton Joullian R.N., B.S.N.

The Nurse Farmer