Grow Your Self Podcast
Published June 10, 2020 by Nicole Burke

The Truth About Tomatoes

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tomatoes
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Learn the Truth About Tomatoes in Episode 22 of Grow Your Self Podcast
The Truth About Tomatoes on the Grow Your Self Podcast

How do you fix a broken tomato?

Tomato paste.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing you shouldn’t put it in a fruit salad.....

Humor is doing it anyway.

Summer is here. When you go through Lowe’s, Home Depot, and other stores, you're about to see tomato plants out there, and they're going to be absolutely tempting for you to buy them and continue to grow them.

Tomatoes are part of the Solanaceae family, which also includes eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatillos. These plants love to grow in warm to hot temperatures and receive loads of sunshine. They have deep roots, so they prefer a bigger garden, and nearly all of them need support. The plants in this family are hungry for loads of nutrients. They'll take whatever your soil gives them, and still want more, thank you.

Most are also in need of pruning and weekly care during the growing season. So, don’t plant these veggies just before you head out of town for three months. No matter how much work they require, you might just want to grow some yourself.

Let's look at some fascinating truths about tomatoes!

(If you prefer to listen, tune in on Listen on Apple Podcast or Spotify.)

Truth About Tomatoes on the Grow Your Self Podcast by Nicole Burke

Tomatoes Are in Almost All American Recipes

I joke with my kids that basically every meal I cook for them has tomatoes in it: pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti, tacos, nachos, BLTs, and chicken nuggets with ketchup. It's like we have tomatoes, carbs, and dairy in every meal, and I know some of you guys might be hating on me for some of those things I just listed, but you know what? That's what we eat.

Tomatoes are one of the world's most consumed vegetable crops. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, around 340 billion pounds, or 170 million tons, of fresh and processed tomatoes were produced around the world in 2014. The harvested area covered is 12 million acres of farmland. The world production of tomatoes has consistently increased over the last 20 years since 2000, growing more than 54% from 2000 to 2014. 

tomatoes growing on vine

Where Tomatoes Are Grown Around the World

Can you guess which countries produce the most tomatoes? 

China is on top, followed by the United States, and then India. Other major players are the European Union and Turkey. These top five tomato producers supply 70% of the global production. This is key, and you'll find out why. Mexico is actually the largest exporter of tomatoes in the whole world, followed by the Netherlands and Spain. These three countries account for a quarter of the world's total tomato exports. 

In the United States, approximately 35 billion pounds of tomatoes were produced in 2015. That's a lot of tomatoes! But only 8% of that total production was in fresh tomatoes, which sell for much higher prices. More than 92% of those tomatoes were processed tomatoes that eventually end up in things like pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, and salsa.  

tomato harvest

Where'd the Word Tomato Come From?

Tomatoes came from South and Central America. The word tomato comes from the Aztec word tomatl.

There have been many names for the tomato. To the French, the tomato was called une pomme, and it was also called pomodoro in Italian, which means golden apple. This suggests that perhaps the first tomatoes that came to Europe from South America were yellow.

The Truth about Tomatoes on Grow Your Self Podcast with Nicole Burke

How Good Are Tomatoes for You?

Tomatoes, which are 95% water, are generally good for you, with only 18 calories. You get a little protein, some fiber, and about 30% of your daily intake of vitamin C all in one fruit. Plus, there's beta carotene, something that's usually more associated with carrots, but it's in tomatoes too. 

No bad things in tomatoes, just good things and some things that you can only get in tomatoes.

Here are the nutrients in a small (100-gram) raw tomato:

  • Calories: 18
  • Water: 95%
  • Protein: 0.9 grams
  • Carbs: 3.9 grams
  • Sugar: 2.6 grams
  • Fiber: 1.2 grams
  • Fat: 0.2 grams

Tomatoes are a good source of several vitamins and minerals:

  • Vitamin C- This vitamin is an essential nutrient and antioxidant. One medium-sized tomato can provide about 28% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI).
  • Potassium- An essential mineral, potassium is beneficial for blood pressure control and heart disease prevention.
  • Vitamin K1- Also known as phylloquinone, vitamin K is important for blood clotting and bone health.
  • Folate (vitamin B9)- One of the B vitamins, folate is important for normal tissue growth and cell function. It’s particularly important for pregnant women.

The main plant compounds in tomatoes are:

  • Lycopene- A red pigment and antioxidant, lycopene has been extensively studied for its beneficial health effects.
  • Beta carotene- An antioxidant that often gives foods a yellow or orange hue, beta carotene is converted into vitamin A in your body.
  • Naringenin- Found in tomato skin, this flavonoid has been shown to decrease inflammation and protect against various diseases in mice.
  • Chlorogenic acid- A powerful antioxidant compound, chlorogenic acid may lower blood pressure in people with elevated levels.

Nutrition facts from: (1Trusted Source)

Why Did People Think Tomatoes Were Poisonous?

How Are Tomatoes Produced in the United States?

Can you guess where most tomatoes are grown in the US? They're mostly grown in Florida and California. These two states account for at least 70% of the whole US tomato production. California alone accounts for 95% of the processed tomato production, so the sauces and salsas you’re buying most likely came from California. 

Florida actually holds the ranking for producing the most fresh tomatoes, but the state is going through a pretty big decline in terms of how many tomatoes they're producing for the US. Starting in 2000, production has been falling consistently, from 1.5 billion pounds to 950 million pounds in 2015, a 40% decrease. This lower production was attributed to banning a fumigant called methyl bromide.

Fresh tomatoes are produced from February to October in California, and then from October to June in Florida, peaking from November to January and again from April to May. Other top producing states are Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia. If you notice, these states are more southern, so they get more sunshine and more heat.

Even though the US grows billions of pounds of fresh tomatoes, we still bring in tomatoes from other countries, like Mexico and Canada. Over the last few years, we've had a lot of competition with Mexico, and this is part of the reason why fewer tomatoes are being produced in the US. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated trade barriers and made year-round imports possible from Mexico. Around that time, the Mexican government did some smart things on their end to increase the production. They supported a lower cost of production and basically made Mexican tomatoes more competitive in the US market. If you're finding tomatoes in the winter in your store, they’re probably all from Mexico. 

summer harvest

The History of Tomatoes

I love knowing where my food's coming from. I think it makes food more interesting and less about just eating, you know what I'm saying?

Tomatoes originated in the Andes by 700 A.D., in what's now called Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador, where they grew wild. South Americans ate tomatoes without fear. A thousand years later, Europeans showed up in South America and were like, “Oh wow! Shiny, bright fruit.”

They took tomatoes back to Europe, and people in Southern Europe tried growing them but didn't quite know what to do with this new plant. Unsure whether or not the plants were poisonous, they were mostly grown as ornamental plants. They are pretty plants, right? That's one of the reasons why we love growing tomatoes.

cherry tomatoes how to grow

Why Did People Think Tomatoes Were Poisonous?

Before the Enlightenment, European botanists still relied a 1000-year-old framework established by a guy named Galen, a physician from Ancient Rome, to categorize their plants. When they started seeing all these new plants from the Americas—corn, blueberries, chocolate—the botanists didn't know where to put them and became mistrustful of all new plants... and also of Galen's system. Did the Ancient Romans really know anything? And if they didn't know everything, is the world, in some sense, unknowable?

The fear of tomatoes being poisonous isn't all that misguided. The leaves, stems, and any plant parts beside the fruits are, in fact, poisonous. Tomato plants also have a similar appearances to the mandrake, which is also poisonous.

The reason people believe the fruits were poisonous as well is actually kind of funny. In Europe during that time, wealthier people used plates and flatware made from lead. So, as they were eating their tomatoes, the acid from the tomatoes would interact with the plates and release the lead, poisoning the people eating them.

Interestingly enough, poor people and people who just didn't have these fancy plates were never harmed. If you had a wooden plate and a low income, you could enjoy all the tomatoes you wanted!

There was also a random superstition in Europe that tomatoes turned people into werewolves.

Early colonists in North America began to have to contend with tomato hornworms, which really do look a little evil, at least for a caterpillar.

All of these things combined made people a little bit scared of tomatoes until the mid-1800s. 

Learn about all the plant families and more

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Rising Popularity of the Tomato

In 1820, a New Jersey colonel by the name of Robert Johnson was trying to win over tomato skeptics. On the steps of a courthouse, he ate a tomato and stood there long enough so people could see that he, in fact, did not drop dead.

But it was really thanks to one five-letter word that tomatoes finally earned their stellar reputation: P-I-Z-Z-A!

Is there a better invention in the world? Pizza made its way into the US in the 1800s thanks to Italian immigrants, and finally, tomatoes were worth eating and potentially being poisoned.

By the 1890s, Joseph Campbell (you know, as inCampbell Soup) found that tomatoes canned well and began marketing condensed tomato soup. And now we have tomatoes everywhere.

tomatoes fruit vs vegetable

Are Tomatoes a Fruit or Vegetable?

By definition, a fruit is the edible plant structure of a mature ovary of a flowering plant, usually eaten raw; some are sweet like apples, but the ones that are not sweet, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc., are commonly called vegetables. Botanists claim that a fruit is any fleshy material that covers a seed or seeds, whereas a horticulturist's point of view would pose that the tomato is a vegetable plant.

Until the late 1800s, the tomato was classified as a fruit to avoid taxation, but this was changed after the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato is a vegetable and should be taxed accordingly.

When all is said and done, the tomato has been classified as a beautiful but poisonous plant, a tax-avoiding fruit, and a taxable vegetable.

Are Tomatoes a Fruit or Vegetable?

What's the Difference Between a Conventional and an Organic Tomato?

A study on conventionally grown tomatoes versus organic kinds showed that the organic tomatoes were 40% smaller than those grown by conventional techniques. They also had accumulated more compounds like sugars, vitamin C, and pigment molecules like lycopene. Even though they were smaller, they were packed with more nutrients.

What’s interesting is that those are stress-related resistance compounds and nutrients. Essentially, what's happening here is that the tomatoes that are being grown organically are getting attacked by pests more, all while being fed with less fertilizer to help them grow. The plants respond to all that stress by creating more sugars, more vitamins, more lycopene, and more antioxidants. How cool is that? 

When you eat those plants that are grown organically, you get those good things. I love this because it's also a metaphor for when we go through hard things; it's kind of like lifting weights, right? You do really hard work, and then your muscles, in response to that stress, grow stronger. When we eat organic tomatoes, we're literally getting to benefit from the stress that those plants have been under because they've had to fight for survival.

Another reason to eat organic tomatoes is because tomatoes are number ten on the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen. That means they found the highest traces of sprays, residues, fertilizers, and herbicides on those fruits. When you eat a tomato that hasn't been grown organically, you're getting all that stuff in your body, too. It's kind of a bummer when you're trying to eat something good for you and you get bad stuff for you at the same time, don't you think? 

Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen List for 2020

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes
why eat organic tomatoes?

What's the Difference Between Processed and Fresh Tomatoes?

One of the first and most important things to know is a processed tomato is harvested ripe and red, with a very short window to pick it. They have a streamlined process to let the fruit get to the ideal level of ripeness and flavor, and then boom, in six hours that thing has to be in the can, ready to ship. 

When you buy fresh market tomatoes, those probably did not have the chance to ripen on the vine. They may be red by the time they reach the produce section, but they're almost always picked green. Some are even gassed with this natural ripening hormone called ethylene to promote consistent ripening. If you've ever grown your own, you know that tomatoes don't all turn red at the same time; they slowly change at different paces. Even if a label says “vine-ripened,” we don’t know if that’s actually true to process.

Tomatoes have been selectively bred for over 50 years to make the long journey from California to your local grocery store. This makes them quite different from the kind you might grow in your own garden, and this is pretty true for almost all trucked vegetables. Grocery-store varieties tend to have thicken skin than fresh tomatoes and can hold up under stress and still enjoy a long shelf life.

Thicker-skinned tomatoes can actually survive the weight of 25,000 pounds of tomatoes piled on top of them in a truck, without suffering much damage. During the height of the season, California tomato growers can produce 2 billion pounds of tomatoes per week. That's 40,000 tomato trucks, each carrying 300,000 tomatoes, which is crazy.

More information about how tomatoes are transported in this article.

Tomatoes are part of the Solanaceae Plant Family

Tomatoes Are in the Solanaceae (or Nightshade) Family

Growing the Solanaceae plant family, I like to say, is for someone who has graduated from the beginner gardener stage. Most people jump to tomatoes right away because they're the crown jewel of the garden. But, in general, tomatoes are more difficult because growing them is kind of like running a marathon versus running a mile.

In the garden, leaves are the first things that come from all plants, so I find it's much easier to start with things like kale, spinach, and romaine or herbs like basil and oregano. You get to harvest the earliest plant parts, which usually pop up in 30 to 40 days. Tomatoes grow for about 65 to 90 days before you can harvest. When plants take longer, there's a greater chance that things can go wrong and there’s more work involved. 

Don't worry, I haven't given you all these scary statistics to not give you the step by step to grow your own.

types of tomatoes

The Two Types of Tomatoes

There are two types of tomato plants: determinate and indeterminate.

The indeterminate type basically means never ending. This is the vining type that's going to produce tomatoes over and over again until frost comes. If you've seen the cover page of my book, Kitchen Garden Revival, or my garden throughout that book, you'll see my vining tomatoes going across my arch. During the three or four months of their growing season in Chicago, they almost reached from one side of the garden to the other. We're talking 10 to 15 feet or more of growth in one season. In Houston, where we rarely get frost, we've had tomatoes that just never stop. They'll go all the way up a trellis and then back down. 

The other type of tomato is called a determinate, or non-vining, tomato. These bush varieties grow to a certain height, probably five or six feet, and then produce their fruit all at once. This is generally a great kind of tomato to grow if you want to make tomato paste, tomato sauce, or salsa, because you can get a bunch of tomatoes all at once.

I love to grow the vining types because I'm not a big kitchen person, as you know, so I don't want to spend a lot of time doing processing, canning, etc. I just want to enjoy them fresh. With a vining type, I can pick a little, let it keep growing, and then pick a little bit more. You decide which one is best for you.

Learn more about growing your own organic tomatoes.

vining tomatoes

The Truth about Tomatoes on Grow Your Self Podcast with Nicole Burke

Food Fight: Peppers Versus Tomatoes

Which one do you think is better for you? Both of them, of course, are very good for you, but one has more sugar. Can you guess which one it is? It's pepper! The pepper has more sugar than the tomato. Peppers also have 50% more calories than tomatoes. Tomatoes actually have considerably less fiber than peppers.

Peppers have eight times the amount of vitamin C and beta carotene, and 15 times the vitamin E. So when you add all that up, it sounds like the pepper is better than the tomato. However, the tomato has the antioxidant lycopene, so if you want to have more antioxidants, then tomatoes are going to be your thing.

Here's my free advice: peppers are easier to grow than tomatoes. Peppers take up a lot less room, and they don't demand quite as much, meaning you don’t have to feed them quite as much and you don't have to trellis them as extensively. You do need a support for your peppers, but you don't have to trellis, train, and prune nearly as much as you do for your tomatoes. 

If you're looking for a quick win with tons of nutrition, I would say the peppers win, but if you're looking for a complete stunner in the garden, then I say go for the tomatoes. That's my unsolicited opinion. 

There you have it, tomatoes versus peppers—I would say probably a toss up which one is actually healthier given the sugar content versus all the vitamins. Clearly, they're both really good for you.

Learn more tips and tricks to grow your own delicious, organic food at home

Become a member of Gardenary 365 to watch our popular online gardening courses that cover seed starting indoors, garden-to-table recipes, microgreens, and so much more. There's no other place to grow your self on line like this.

When tomatoes are in season in your town, buy them up, especially the ones from local farmers, and eat as many as you can when they’re in season.

Learn to grow a little bit yourself—it's going to help you appreciate all those tomatoes you consume throughout the winter, when you're having pizza, hamburgers, tacos, and all that good stuff.

Have a bigger appreciation for this thing that's so popular and yet so under appreciated. There's a lot that goes into these little red fruits. They don't turn us into werewolves, they're just so good for us, especially when they're grown organically and cared for the way they should be. 

Thanks for helping to make the garden an ordinary part of life again!

Truth About Tomatoes on the Grow Your Self Podcast with Nicole Burke