By Anne Palumbo
Do I have an unusual attachment to canned tomato products? You might think so by the stash in my pantry: diced, crushed, whole, stewed, pureed. Truth is, of all the canned goods I tap for cooking, canned tomatoes make my heart sing more than any other. They’re economical, convenient and never seem to spoil. I like that in a vegetable. No waste!
They’re also, much like their forbearer, high in both nutrition and flavor.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, canned foods can be just as nutritious as fresh and frozen foods because the fruits and vegetables used for canning are picked at peak freshness.
Although most nutrients remain relatively unchanged by the canning process, the water-soluble nutrients — such as vitamins A and C, thiamine and riboflavin — can be damaged by the high heat canning requires. On average, canning destroys from one-third to one-half of the vitamins mentioned above.
The high heat, however, has a remarkable affect on perhaps a tomato’s most valuable nutrient: lycopene. It increases the amount. For example, one medium-size fresh tomato delivers 4 mg of lycopene, whereas a cup of tomato soup or a half-cup of tomato puree delivers a whopping 25 mg. Although there is no recommended daily intake for lycopene, current studies suggest daily intakes between 8-21 mg to be most beneficial.
A powerful antioxidant, lycopene helps defend your cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals. When free radicals accumulate, they can increase your risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Fortunately, eating antioxidant-rich foods like tomatoes can help reduce the risk of these diseases.
But the benefits of this superstar nutrient don’t end there. Several studies suggest that lycopene may also be your heart’s best friend, thanks to its ability to help reduce inflammation, lower bad cholesterol, and maintain good blood pressure. In fact, promising research from Finland demonstrated that men with the greatest amount of lycopene in their blood had a 55% lower chance of having any kind of stroke. Another V8, please!
Worried about the sun’s harmful rays? Premature wrinkling? A diet rich in lycopene may help increase your skin’s defense against sunburns and damage caused by UV rays. While tomatoes, especially those canned or cooked, can’t substitute for sunscreen, they can provide a consistent level of skin protection, say scientists.
Anne’s Break-Out-the-Chips Salsa
4 cloves garlic
1 jalapeno pepper (less if desired)
1 cup fresh cilantro (optional)
1 large onion
1 orange bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 15-oz. can petite diced tomatoes
fresh lime juice from 1 to 2 limes
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt (or more)
½ teaspoon coarse black pepper
Finely chop garlic and jalapeno pepper in a food processor, then add cilantro (if using) and process about a minute more. Cut onion and bell peppers into large chunks and add to food processor. Pulse about 10 times or until onion and peppers look evenly chopped.
In a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add mixture from food processor to saucepan and sauté for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, and lowering heat if mixture starts to burn.
Add crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, lime juice and all spices to saucepan; mix well. Bring mixture to a simmer and let it simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn heat down if it starts to boil and sputter. After 15 minutes, adjust seasonings, cover, turn heat to lowest setting and let it cook for 15 minutes more. Turn off heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Place in jars and refrigerate: good for about 2 weeks.
Not all canned tomato products are created equal, so be sure to read the label and ingredient list. Choose “low sodium” or “no salt added” if salt is a concern for you. Look for cans that say or indicate “Non BPA” (most do). Since your body absorbs more lycopene when it’s combined with a little fat, consider adding some healthy fats, like olive oil, to your dish.
Anne Palumbo is a lifestyle columnist, food guru, and seasoned cook, who has perfected the art of preparing nutritious, calorie-conscious dishes. She is hungry for your questions and comments about SmartBites, so be in touch with Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org.