Grab a ripe one for unparalleled flavor and cancer-fighting lycopene

Even as summer's end draws near, the ruby red tomato remains lusty with possibilities. Aside from luscious flavor, every one of the thousands of tomato varieties—from tiny cherry tomatoes to the giant Ponderosa—is a low-calorie nutrient marvel, offering up vitamin C, plus A, B, potassium, iron, phosphorous, and as much fiber as a slice of whole-wheat bread. No wonder the French dubbed them pommes d'amour, or "love apples."

Eat your reds
Tomatoes offer more lycopene than any other food source, but other red and pink edibles, including watermelon, guava, and pink grapefruit, also provide the antioxidant in smaller quantities.

—C.C.

But the tomato's true nutritional superstar is lycopene, the most powerful antioxidant in the carotenoid family and the compound responsible for that gorgeous red hue. Read on to learn how lycopene gives your body some hot-tomato love.

Lycopene legacy
Lycopene prevents free radicals from binding with oxygen, a combination that degrades healthy cells, leading to cancer and other ailments. Lycopene is not manufactured by the body, yet "it is essential to ease up the aging process of cells," says Elena Burton, MD, a naturopath and expert in holistic health and nutrition. "In simple terms, it slows the rusting process. [It's] key to immune-system building, cleansing, and repair."

Tomatoes' roots
Called Lycopersicon lycopersicum ("wolf peach") in scientific circles, tomatoes belong to the nightshade family, related to eggplant, red pepper, potato, and belladonna. Although technically a fruit, in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes were to be considered vegetables—a nod to American farmers who worried that imported tomatoes would flood the market (at that time, vegetables carried an import tax but fruits did not).

—C.C.

Lycopene's cancer-protective benefits first came to light in 1995, when a Harvard study showed that men who ate a lot of tomatoes reduced their risk of prostate cancer (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1995, vol. 87, no. 25). Subsequent research supports lycopene's role in reducing cancer risk in the digestive tract, lung, breast, and stomach (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1999, vol. 91, no. 4). The red-pigment antioxidant may also protect against age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people older than 65 (Archives of Ophthalmology, 1995, vol. 113, no. 12). Researchers believe lycopene can also reduce risk of lung damage caused by environmental pollutants (Experimental Biology and Medicine, 2002, vol. 227, no. 10). And drinking just 8 ounces of tomato juice daily may help people with type 2 diabetes by thinning the blood, thereby decreasing the chance of clots and associated heart troubles that often complicate the disease (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2004, vol. 292, no. 7). "Bottom line, lycopene is high-octane fuel for growing healthy cells," says Burton.

Put the heat on
Although there's nothing—nothing—like a garden-fresh tomato, cooked tomatoes actually provide more lycopene because heat disrupts the tomato's cell structure, making the antioxidant more available; that's why cooked, canned, or bottled tomatoes offer more lycopene than fresh. Adding a small amount of fat, such as olive oil or cheese, dissolves lycopene, allowing more of it to be absorbed into the bloodstream—so enjoy that marinara on your pasta.

Storage tips
Never refrigerate tomatoes! Cold temperatures kill flavor and make the flesh pulpy. Ripen tomatoes by storing in a pierced paper bag with an apple for several days at room temperature.

—C.C.

Lycopene from foods beats supplements every time, say experts, probably because tomatoes' myriad nutrients work together to help protect against degenerative diseases. "It's all about synergy, the nutrients working together within the tomato coupled with nutrients in other foods," says Barton. "Tomatoes are an important piece in the mosaic of a balanced diet." Pick up a ripe one today; seek out locally grown, organic, and heirloom tomatoes for the least tampering and best flavor.