The fall harvest is upon us. Perhaps you’ve been gathering the last of the
delicious, ripened vegetables from your garden or from local farm stands in the countryside as you set out on autumn adventures.
Perhaps you’ve even started canning a crop that grows on the vine, for some winter enjoyment. And that’s a good idea. Because according to a new study, regularly eating this crop (technically, a fruit) dramatically lowers your risk of developing skin cancer.
Once thought to be poisonous, now prominent
This crop has an interesting history. When Spanish explorers first arrived in the 1500s, they found it flourishing among the Aztecs in Mesoamerica.
For about 200 years, the Spanish considered the plant poisonous because one of its European relatives is the deadly nightshade plant that yields belladonna, a potent neurological poison (atropine). Never ones to let health stand in the way of beauty, European women used belladonna to paralyze and dilate their pupils — giving them the doe-like look of a bella (beautiful) donna (woman).
The new crop languished in America, but it finally started appearing on menus in Europe in the late 1700s. Thomas Jefferson brought it back to the U.S., ironically, as a “new food” from Europe.
It rapidly became a staple of several types of cuisine in Europe and the U.S. And it may be the only redeeming feature of “fast foods” and convenience foods that keep growing in popularity in the U.S.
I began studying the tomato ⎯ the crop I’m talking about ⎯ with a team of scientists at National Cancer Institute (NCI) and USDA in the mid-1980s. Not much was known about it then.
Through our research, we found that college students who ate lots of it ⎯ concentrated in condiments, sauces, and toppings ⎯ had very high levels of a carotenoid called lycopene, which no one had heard of. The bright yellow-orange-red colors of the fruit clued us in that it’s high in carotenoid plant pigments.
Of course, back then, the NCI only wanted to focus only on the false promise of beta-carotene. But as time went on, the science showed that lycopene in this fruit has a strong pro-health and anti-cancer effect for the prostate gland in men.
New study links tomato consumption to lower skin cancer risk
In the new study I mentioned earlier, researchers at Ohio State University aimed to determine whether consuming the tangerine or red variety of tomatoes would significantly reduce skin cancer tumors in male and female mice chronically exposed to UV light.
They fed male and female mice tomato powder every day for 35 weeks and exposed them to UV light. The male mice experienced a whopping 50 percent reduction in skin cancer tumors when compared to the control group of mice that didn’t eat tomato powder.
Interestingly, the same effect was not seen in female mice. But prior research shows that male mice tend to develop skin cancer tumors far faster than female mice when exposed to artificial ultraviolet light. Plus, their tumors are generally more numerous, larger and more aggressive. (So, it could be that we need to conduct longer studies with female mice.)
How does it work?
This study isn’t the first to explore the connection between tomatoes and sun protection.
In a previous human trial, women consumed 55 grams (five tablespoons) of tomato paste daily for three months. (You can easily get this “dose” eating tomatoes in meals on a regular basis.)
After three months, the women had 33 percent more sun protection against sunburn than the control group. They also had significantly higher levels of a protein called procollagen, which supports skin structure and health.
The researchers suggested that tomatoes could help counter the effects of aging on the skin. This theory makes sense, as carotenoids, like lycopene, act as antioxidants and have other biological properties.
Plus, past studies show that pigments from tomatoes deposit directly into human skin after eating. And consuming tomato paste (concentrated tomatoes) helps protect against sunburns.
Of course, tomatoes have plenty of other health benefits as well. For one, studies show that eating tomatoes, or tomato-based products, just twice per week reduces the risk of prostate cancer by 34 percent. Other studies show eating tomatoes reduces the risk of breast, larynx, lung, oral, and pharynx cancers as well.
The “fast food” diet of young Americans is a killer. However, as we found in the 1980s, at least college kids have high levels of lycopene in their diet, thanks to all the pizza, and hamburgers and fries laden with ketchup and sauce. Indeed, the tomato in ketchup and pizza sauce may be the only reason they make it into their 50s and 60s before succumbing to chronic diseases.
Unfortunately, you won’t hear the usual suspect experts touting tomatoes as the latest “super-food,” but they come a lot closer than most. And remember, lycopene supplements alone may not provide as much protection as eating real tomatoes. So, one way or another, make sure you get plenty of tomatoes into your diet year-round.
“Tomatoes protect against development of UV-induced keratinocyte carcinoma via metabolomic alterations,” Scientific Reports, July 26, 2017; 7: 5106
“Tomato dishes ‘may protect skin’,” BBC (news.bbc.co.uk) 4/28/08