The Controversial Tomato

What do you call a fruit that does the job of a vegetable? My children have designated them “vuits.” And the most common one in our house is the tomato.

Poking around on the net, I found that the tomato has been causing controversy for centuries! Who knew? They look so innocent. According to Wikipedia, the tomato originated in Peru in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Britain and North America, however, the plant took a while to catch on since it had a reputation to overcome. A member of the nightshade family (along with potatoes, eggplant and several other commonly used substances and spices) plants in this family often contain alkaloids, which are used in medicines, but can also be toxic. Folks in these countries thought tomatoes were poisonous until the 1800s.

This vuit’s status – vegetable or fruit?? – has even had legal implications in the United States. While botanically it’s a fruit, an 1887 tariff that imposed a tax on vegetables (but not fruits) took the question to court. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it a veggie, since it was more commonly served with dinner, than as a dessert!

Today tomatoes are used around the world and are praised for their nutrients. Vitamins A, C, B, K and E are found in tomatoes. In addition to calcium and iron, they’re also chock full of lycopene, which some studies show reduces the risk of cancer, lowers the risk of heart disease and helps prevent eye disease. In addition, they’re loaded with potassium and are low calorie and low fat. I consider them an essential part of my food storage plan—not just because they add a ton of flavor and variety to what I can serve, but also because they offer a lot of nutritional bang for my buck!

But they’re still surrounded by controversy. In 2006 a salmonella outbreak was linked to fresh tomatoes. And currently, it’s not the tomato itself, but the packaging that’s causing concern. Tomatoes are most often sold in cans – metal cans that have been coated with a compound called BPA. Used to keep the acid in tomatoes from eating through the can, science is spending a lot of dollars to determine how much BPA ends up in your tomatoes and how detrimental it is to your health. Meanwhile, can manufacturers are working to develop BPA-free cans.

Opinions vary on the dangers of BPA in canned tomatoes – everything from “I’ll-never-eat-another-canned-tomato-again” to “soda-is-much-worse-for-you-than-the-miniscule-amount-of-BPA-in-canned-tomatoes.” There are pros and cons for each side that you’ll have to weigh for your own family as you build your storage. Currently I store cans of tomatoes, but I’m not opposed to other options if they’ll last on my shelf, and they aren’t ridiculously expensive.

One solution is to can your own tomatoes or purchase only tomato products sold in glass jars. Another is the boxed tomatoes available from Pomi. At $2-$3/26-ounce box, they’re more expensive than cans, but the flavor is supposed to be fantastic! I was unable to find anywhere that gave the shelf life of boxed tomatoes, but I plan to order some and see for myself…


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