It wouldn’t be summer without tomatoes. Cultivated by the ancient Aztecs, tomatoes are indigenous to western South America. Spanish and Italian chefs quickly adopted tomatoes after Spanish explorers brought them to Europe in the 15th century. Northern Europeans were a little slower on the uptake. They thought tomatoes were poisonous – probably because they’re a member of the nightshade family – and did not start cultivating them until the late-16th century. Over 7,000 varieties of tomatoes are grown worldwide.
In this post we’ll be looking at tomatoes from the perspective of the Chinese traditional healing arts. Since it’s still summer in the northern hemisphere, we’re looking at summer foods. First we’ll take a brief look at their nutritional content from the Western perspective. Then we’ll discuss their various properties, actions, and common indications as seen through the lens of several thousand years of empirical evidence compiled by the Chinese healing arts community.
Western Nutritional Properties
From the Western nutritional perspective, tomatoes are a good source of vitamins C, K, and folate. They’re fairly high in the mineral potassium. And they contain significant amounts of lycopene, and beta carotene.
Important for immune system function, vitamin C is necessary for tissue repair, and the production of various neurotransmitters. Vitamin K facilitates blood clotting and bone health. Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is also important for normal tissue growth and cell function.
The mineral potassium is one of the most important in the body. Potassium helps regulate fluid metabolism. It also essential for proper functioning of our muscles, and the transmission of nerve signals.
Lycopene gives tomatoes their distinctive red color. Lycopene has been linked with controlling inflammation. It reduces heat in our circulatory system, and may be beneficial for eye problems such as macular degeneration. Beta carotene is a red-orange plant pigment. Think carrots. During digestion beta carotene is converted into vitamin A.
Chinese Nutritional Properties
From the perspective of the Chinese traditional healing arts, tomatoes are cool energetically. They have both sweet and sour flavors, and they influence the Stomach and Liver.
The cool thermal temperature functions to reduce internal heat. Because tomatoes influence the Stomach and Liver, they specifically cool heat in those two organs. In contemporary terminology, you could say the cooling function is anti-inflammatory.
The sweet flavor is tonifying. Tonifying foods, or herbs, make things firmer and stronger by increasing energy, and reinforcing metabolic function. The sour flavor is astringent. It’s stabilizing and binding. In the context of food therapy, astringency keeps things in place. The sour flavor is particularly effective at helping the body retain fluids by preventing loss through sweating, diarrhea, or excess urination.
Let’s see how these properties are reflected in tomatoes. Tomatoes cool and promote body fluids, relieve thirst, and moisten dryness. They reinforce Stomach function, and can be used in cases of weak appetite, indigestion, even constipation. However, they also cool an overactive, over-heated Stomach. Symptoms of Stomach heat include bad breath, or an overly active appetite.
Tomatoes also enter the Liver to clear Liver “heat,” purify the blood, and relax and detox the body in general. Common symptoms of Liver heat include high blood pressure, temporal headaches, blood-shot eyes, and short tempers.
The Chinese healing arts are all about correcting imbalance. If someone’s too hot, then specific foods are used to cool them. But if used improperly, they can actually cause more damage than good. In this case, people who are over-weight, or have slow metabolism, must exercise caution with cooling foods such as tomatoes. Over-consumption of tomatoes, particularly raw tomatoes, can further cool metabolic function, leading to fatigue, tiredness, weakened digestive function, and symptoms such as diarrhea.