Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on November 16, 2021

What’s So Great About Them?

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Tomatoes are loaded with a substance called lycopene. It gives them their bright red color and helps protect them from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. In much the same way, it can help protect your cells from damage. Tomatoes also have potassium, vitamins B and E, and other nutrients.

Immune System

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Lycopene is an antioxidant -- it fights molecules called free radicals that can damage your cells and affect your immune system. Because of that, foods high in lycopene, like tomatoes, may make you less likely to have lung, stomach, or prostate cancer. Some research shows they might help prevent the disease in the pancreas, colon, throat, mouth, breast, and cervix as well.

Heart

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Lycopene also may help lower your levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, as well as your blood pressure. And that may lower your chances of heart disease. Other nutrients in tomatoes, like vitamins B and E and antioxidants called flavonoids, may boost your heart health, too.

Eyes

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Tomatoes have substances called lutein and zeaxanthin that may help protect your eyes from the blue light made by digital devices like smartphones and computers. They also may help keep your eyes from feeling tired and ease headaches from eyestrain. And some research shows they may even make you less likely to have a more serious form of the leading cause of blindness in the U.S.: age-related macular degeneration.

Lungs

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Some studies show that tomatoes may be helpful for people who have asthma and may help prevent emphysema, a condition that slowly damages the air sacs in your lungs. That may be because lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, among other antioxidants, fight the harmful substances in tobacco smoke, which is the leading cause of emphysema. Scientists are trying to learn more about those effects.

Blood Vessels

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Getting more tomatoes into your diet may make you less likely to have a stroke, which is when blood flow gets cut off to a part of your brain.  Studies suggest that they may ease inflammation, boost your immune system, lower your cholesterol levels, and keep your blood from clotting. All those things may help prevent strokes.

Oral Health

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Studies have shown that lycopene may help with the gum diseases gingivitis and periodontitis in the same way it may help prevent cancer -- by fighting free radicals. But eating lots of raw tomatoes can damage the enamel on your teeth -- thanks to the high amount of acid -- and brushing soon afterward can make that worse. It’s a good idea to wait at least 30 minutes before you brush. 

Skin

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You know hats and sunscreen can help shield you from the sun. Well, the lycopene in tomatoes may do something for that, too, possibly in the same way it protects tomatoes. It's not a substitute for sunscreen, and you don’t put it on your skin. It helps, though, by working on your cells from the inside. 

Fresh vs. Canned

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Both can be good for you, but in different ways. Nutrients like lycopene may be easier for your body to take in and use from canned tomato products compared with fresh tomatoes. But the heat that’s used to process them can get rid of some vitamin C and other nutrients.

Serving Suggestion: Caprese Salad

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Fresh summer tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella cheese, olive oil, and basil -- it’s beautiful and delicious. The combo also works from a health perspective: Your body needs the fat in ingredients like cheese and olive oil to take in and use certain nutrients, including lycopene.

Serving Suggestion: Homemade Marinara

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This is a great way to get the most out of the tomato’s most famous nutrient: lycopene. The heat used to cook the tomatoes can make the nutrient easier for your body to use. And you can add a touch of olive oil to help you absorb it.

Serving Suggestion: Salsa

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Use this in place of tomato-based sauces like ketchup and barbecue sauce, which can be loaded with sugar, salt, and preservatives. Make your own so you know exactly what’s going into it, or check the labels and look for a healthy version.

Serving Suggestion: Roasted Tomatoes

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If you’ve never roasted them over the grill, you’re missing out on a treat. Their intense smoky flavor makes for a nice side dish with whatever you’re serving. If it’s too cold to get out to the grill, just broil them in the oven and drizzle on a little olive oil.  

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SOURCES:

American Dental Association: “Nutrition: What You Eat Affects Your Teeth.”

American Journal of Affective Disorders: “A tomato-rich diet is related to depressive symptoms among an elderly population aged 70 years and over: A population-based, cross-sectional analysis.”

American Journal of Physiology - Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology: “Tomato juice prevents senescence-accelerated mouse P1 strain from developing emphysema induced by chronic exposure to tobacco smoke.”

Fruits & Veggies--More Matters: “Tomato: Nutrition, Selection, Storage.”

American Journal of Physiology: “Tomato juice prevents senescence-accelerated mouse P1 strain from developing emphysema induced by chronic exposure to tobacco smoke.”

Caries Research: “Brushing abrasion of softened and remineralised dentin: an in situ study.”

Free Radical Research: “Lycopene-rich treatments modify noneosinophilic airway inflammation in asthma: proof of concept.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Lycopene-rich tomatoes linked to lower stroke risk.”

JAMA Ophthalmology: “Intakes of Lutein, Zeaxanthin, and Other Carotenoids and Age-Related Macular Degeneration During 2 Decades of Prospective Follow-up.”

Mayo Clinic: “When and how often should you brush your teeth?” “Emphysema.”

Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice: “Effect of lycopene in the treatment of periodontal disease: a clinical study.”

Mediators of Inflammation: “Enhancing the Health-Promoting Effects of Tomato Fruit for Biofortified Food.”

National Foundation for Cancer Research: “Tasty Tomatoes: Anti-Cancer Attributes & A Healthy Recipe.”

National Stroke Association: “Signs and Symptoms of Stroke.”

Neurology: “Serum lycopene decreases the risk of stroke in men.”

Nutritional Neuroscience: “Serum concentrations of antioxidant vitamins and carotenoids are low in individuals with a history of attempted suicide.”

United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service.

What’s Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl: “Roasted Tomatoes with Herbs,” “Easy Marinara Sauce.”