“New world” foods transform nutrition

In history class, you probably learned that the discovery of the “New World” revolutionized Europe’s economy. But it also transformed Europe’s health and nutritional status.

It’s a little-known and compelling story I plan to tell you more about in a series of articles this fall. Starting today.

Indeed, Native American foods had a profound effect on European health, nutrition, and population demographics. In fact, Europeans had just 16 plants grown as foods before explorers discovered the “New World.” And the introduction of the “New World” foods vastly improved nutrition in Europe. And ultimately, in colonial and early America too.

The tomato is one such food.

Most people associate the tomato with Italy. But the tomato actually originated in South America, thousands of years ago. It first grew wild in a vast area that now comprises Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.

The people of Central and South America began to cultivate the tomato as a food source for the first time in prehistory. Its popularity quickly spread to an even larger area. Extending as far north as the Central Valley of modern-day Mexico.

The earliest written record of the tomato dates back to the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico in the early 1500s. The Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagun mentioned the tomato as an ingredient in a sauce sold in the huge central market in the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). The sauce consisted of tomatl (tomato), pepitas (pumpkin seeds), aji (hot red pepper), and chiles verdes (hot green peppers). Of course, these were all foods native to America. And they are all good for your health.

Tomatoes were also served at important ceremonial meals along with turkey and dog meat. (Dogs probably came to the Americas with the very first humans at least 50,000 years ago or more. They came across the Bering Strait between Asia and North America.) They also used the tomato in everyday cooking. They stewed it in a pot with turkey or fish, peppers, and pumpkin.

Many people think Columbus brought the tomato back to Spain after one of his voyages to America. But this is untrue. The Spanish Conquistadores found it in Mexico and brought it back to Europe in subsequent decades.

Initially, the Spanish didn’t use the tomato as a food source. They considered it more of a magical or medicinal plant. In fact, in Spanish folklore, medicine men used the tomato as a “cure” for various ailments. They also used it for magical potions. And even as an aphrodisiac.

In the 16th century, a Spanish herbalist mentioned the tomato for the first time as a food source. He wrote that you cook the tomato in a paella (pot) with oil and garlic. But he describes them as noxious and harmful to eat.

A botanist from Siena (Tuscany) in the 16th century was the first to call the tomato by the name “pomo d’oro” or golden apple. That name stuck in Italian. But the word for tomato in Spanish, French, German, and English derives from the original tomatl, given by the Nahuatl Indians of Mexico.

The Spanish also brought the tomato plant to the Italian territories they controlled during the 17th century. But it was not widely used in Italian cooking for at least another century.

In 1705, Francesco Guadentio, lay-provisioner for the community of Jesuits in Rome, wrote down the first, known Italian recipe for cooking tomatoes. And by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, leading Italian chefs endorsed the tomato as a delicacy.

In the late 18th century, tomatoes also reached revolutionary Paris–the culinary capital of Europe. They came from sunny Provence and the environs of Marseilles to the south, where they grew and matured well in the favorable climate. They arrived just in time for the Parisian crowds to throw them at victims in trundle carts being taken to the guillotines.

Like the “Marseillaise” itself, the tomato was quickly adopted in revolutionary Paris. Perhaps the tomato’s bright red color matched the mood of the times. During his time in revolutionary France as Ambassador of the new United States, Thomas Jefferson came to know the tomato as well. He brought it, along with many other plants, back home to cultivate at Monticello.

The tomato also steadily gained popularity among Italian chefs. In Sicily, they began to add sliced tomatoes to boiling pasta water. In Campania, the home of tomato sauce, large-scale cultivation finally got under way.

Tomatoes really became a common food in the 19th century, with the rise of industrial canning. And in 1835, William Underwood opened the first industrial canning factory in Boston. Out of this factory came the first canned tomato sauce.

So by the mid-19th century, the tomato had come full circle back to America. Just in time for the millions of Italian immigrants arriving on American shores to find a familiar food from “home.”

One hundred years later, in 1985, a second-generation Italian-American helped the tomato take on even higher health status. I’m referring to myself, of course. I helped conduct the research that first revealed tomatoes as an abundant source of lycopene, a nutrient critical for prostate health. Lycopene shows benefits for the brain and memory as well. Subscribers to my newsletter will learn more about the benefits of lycopene in the October issue. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to become one.