More Than a Pretty Face

More Than a Pretty Face Image

The tomato has come a long way since the days of colonial America, when it was dubbed a deadly nightshade and relegated to the world of ornamentals. Fortunately, this was a short-lived, regional blip in the life of the rotund fruit, which has since been considered a healthy food.

A new study at IIT’s Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) goes one step further, finding that the tomato is not only health-promoting but can weaken the harmful effects of a high-fat diet. Tomatoes contain lycopene, a pigment compound in food known for its antioxidant qualities. Based on its earlier research of strawberries, another source of antioxidants, the team hypothesized that the tomatoes must be consumed as part of a meal in order to have a lasting, protective effect following a high-fat meal—when cell damage, oxidative stress, and inflammation occur in the body.

IFSH researchers studied 25 healthy adults, supplementing high-fat meals with standard portions of tomato paste, a concentrated form of lycopene. The study, published in the April 2012 volume of the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, demonstrated that consuming tomatoes as part of a high-fat meal blocked a rise in harmful oxidized low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and inflammation; this may reduce the risk of developing heart disease. The study also supported earlier research that the consumption of antioxidants enables the body to maintain appropriate levels of insulin, required to maintain proper blood sugar.

“Oxidative stress and inflammation are tightly linked and associated with many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” says a principal researcher on the team, Indika Edirisinghe, research assistant professor and senior scientist with the Center for Nutrition Research at IFSH. He and his team also completed similar lycopene research with overweight/obese subjects and found significant beneficial effects.

Edirisinghe adds, “Addressing daily and meal-to-meal ‘insults’ to maintain system balance may be an important strategy for reducing chronic illness.”

—With reporting by Elyse Doll (PSYC 4th Year)