Tomatoes ~ from poison to passion

Our ancestors considered tomatoes to be deadly poisonous. Today, in the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of acres planted in countless varieties of tomatoes yield millions of tons of tomatoes each year. L.D. Bennett photo

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

Tomatoes are one of our most favorite late summer foods. 

Around here, most of us celebrate a successful gardening season with a month-long orgy of tomato sandwiches. 

I don’t know about you, but I can eat them for breakfast, lunch and supper. 

And the ones I can’t eat, I can. Nothing tastes better in the dead of winter than a spoonful of home canned tomatoes, right out of the jar.  

You may not believe me when I tell you that this vegetable – okay, technically it’s a fruit – a summer staple on every dinner table, was very late in getting there.

Our ancestors considered tomatoes to be deadly poisonous.

Thanks to their unfair reputation as a poisonous plant, it took until the early 1800s before Americans would finally trust them enough to begin to eat them. 

While South American peoples had been consuming them for centuries, tomatoes couldn’t shake the prejudice with which the English and European settlers viewed them. 

Tomatoes weren’t always the big beauties we have now. 

They started out as a small fruit, probably the size of a cherry tomato that the Aztecs and Indians of Mexico ground up and combined with ahi, a kind of chili pepper, to make a spicy sauce. 

Our word “tomato” is a modification of tomati, the original word used by these people who had been using them for food since prehistoric times. 

Other names reported by early European explorers were tomatl, tumatle, and tomatas, probably variants of the original Indian words.

Although Central and South Americans had been eating tomatoes for centuries, very few people of European descent would dare to eat the fruit until the early 19th century.

They were nicknamed “poison apples” and were believed to cause sickness and death, especially among members of the upper social classes. 

There are two main theories as to why people thought tomatoes were poisonous.

Many historians believed that merchants and wealthy Europeans (probably some of the first Europeans to eat tomatoes) eating on pewter plates originated tomatoes’ bad reputation. 

The acid in the tomatoes leached the lead out of the pewter and many people died of lead poisoning. 

The other theory says that people recognized the resemblance between tomatoes and their actual relative – deadly nightshade. 

They disliked the unpleasant odor of the leaves and stems and the common allergic skin reactions to them also caused people to believe the worst.

In their native Andes Mountains, tomatoes actually grew wild, and were then cultivated and their seeds transported around the world.

Presumably the cultivated species of tomatoes were carried from the slopes of the Andes northward into Central America and Mexico in the same way as maize, during the prehistoric migration of native tribes, probably in the last two thousand years.

 In the early 16th Century, Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors returning from expeditions in Mexico and South America first introduced the seeds to Spain and from there, they spread throughout southern Europe.

It grew easily in Mediterranean climates, and cultivation began in the 1540s. 

From there the tomato reached Italy, where it was called pomo dei mori – Apple of the Moors.

It was introduced to France as an aphrodisiac, and the French gave it the romantic name, pomme d’ amour – or apple of love. 

In Germany the tomato was called paradies apfel, Apple of Paradise, because it was believed that the Turks brought it from the Holy Land.

The tomato reached England under the name pome amoris – love apple, and later under that name was carried back over the Atlantic by colonists to the American continent.

Not until after the Declaration of Independence do we find any record of the tomato being grown by European settlers in this country. 

Thomas Jefferson, who was a remarkably accomplished farmer, made mention of growing a species of tomato in 1781. 

Tomatoes were being used as food in New Orleans as early as 1812, doubtless because of the influence of French cuisine.

But it would be another 20 to 25 years before tomatoes would be offered a spot on the dinner table in most parts of the United States.

By 1840, tomato recipes had started appearing in local newspapers and their reputation was well on the mend.

By 1897, innovator Joseph Campbell figured out that tomatoes keep well when canned and popularized condensed tomato soup.

Italy has long been famous for its excellent tomato paste and pasta sauces. 

And where would pizza and spaghetti be without tomatoes?

But for the long-suffering tomato, although it had been grown for food in Italy since the late 1700s, the turning point didn’t really come until 1880 with the invention of pizza in Naples. 

Nowadays, the tomato is present in nearly every cuisine.

Today, in the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of acres planted in countless varieties of tomatoes yield millions of tons of tomatoes each year.

Tomatoes are packed with vitamin C, are low in calories, and are fat-free – but that’s not all.

They are so full of vitamins and minerals that we could call them nature’s multi-vitamins.

The high levels of lycopene help fight the growth of cancerous cells. 

Cooked tomatoes produce even more lycopene, so canning them is a good way to increase their healthfulness.

Tomatoes contain significant quantities of calcium and Vitamin K. 

Both of these nutrients help to strengthen and speed repairs in our the bones. 

Tomatoes can even help repair the damage done as a result of cigarette smoking. 

The coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid that they contain work to protect the body from carcinogens that are produced from cigarette smoke.

Their Vitamin A, Vitamin C and beta-carotene work as antioxidants to neutralize free radicals in the blood.

Although cooking increases the potency of the lycopene in tomatoes, it destroys the vitamin C. 

So if you are eating tomatoes for the vitamin C, eat your tomatoes raw. 

Tomatoes are good for your heart. 

They contain Vitamin B and potassium, which helps reduce cholesterol levels and lowers blood pressure. 

The Vitamin A in tomatoes works to keep your hair shiny and strong. It also does wonders for your eyes, skin, bones and teeth.

Some studies indicate that eating tomatoes without their seeds can reduce the risk of kidney stones.

The Vitamin A found in tomatoes is helpful for improving your vision. 

Tomatoes can help fight diabetes because they are packed full of chromium, which can help diabetics keep blood sugar levels under control.

They are loaded with thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper, which are all essential for our health. 

In a single serving, tomatoes provide about two grams of fiber – seven percent of the recommended daily amount.

So, while you’re devouring those delicious tomato sandwiches, be grateful that we gave up thinking of tomatoes as poisonous. 

They are about as far from poison as a food can get!

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