Surprising reasons to eat canned foods for big health benefits

It’s not easy being a dietitan in a grocery store. People peer into your cart and say, “I can’t believe you eat processed foods!” It’s a great opportunity to let them in on a secret about “processed” foods found in the middle aisles.

 I want you to eat this processed food this November (and the other 11 months)…canned tomato products Why? For those of you who say, “I never eat processed foods,” think again when it comes to canned tomatoes. According to Alec Wasson, “chief tomato evangelist” with the Tomato Products Wellness Council, “canned tomatoes are harvested in the field and immediately whisked to a nearby processing plant, where they are processed within 4 to 5 hours on average, capturing the flavor and nutrition of tomatoes at their peak.”

Bottom line: Not all processed foods are bad (milk, baby carrots, and yogurt are processed foods) and many healthful foods (tomatoes, beans, tuna, etc.) are found in the middle of the grocery store!

Why the month of November?

November is prostate cancer awareness month. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in the U.S. And, 3 million men are living with prostate cancer and maybe one of them is your grandfather, father, spouse, uncle, or brother. Prostate cancer cells grow very slowly, and researchers are investigating strategies to reduce growth through “chemoprevention,” compounds in foods or drugs that can slow the growth. 

One of the most promising is a naturally occurring red pigment called lycopene (lye-co-peen). In plants, lycopene defends their cells from light-induced stress. Apricots, guava, and watermelon contain lycopene, but they can’t beat the lycopene content in tomatoes and tomato-based products, like canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, paste, and marinara sauces. Research into the connection between lycopene and prostate cancer continues to evolve but it suggests that cooked tomatoes play a role in reducing a man’s risk for developing prostate cancer.

Where to find lycopene

Lycopene is a lipophilic, meaning it likes to attach to fat (lipids) so eating tomatoes with some fat increases its absorption. Maybe that is why a drizzle of olive oil over fresh tomatoes tastes so good. But, another way to increase lycopene absorption is through heat treatment in the canning process. Cooking makes lycopene about two and half times more available to the body. While there is no recommended dietary intake (RDA) for lycopene, studies show about 10-20 milligrams/day is a good bet. One cup of tomato sauce has 46 milligrams, whereas a fresh tomato has about 3 milligrams. Wasson adds, “about 85% of the lycopene in our diets comes from tomatoes, canned products are easy, affordable, and versatile.”

While the research is promising for slowing prostate cancer cells, it is far from conclusive, so please don’t turn to lycopene supplements. But do eat plenty of tomato-based products for not only their lycopene, but for vitamins A and C, folate, and potassium. And, taste, don’t forget delicious taste!

Here are my favorite ways to eat tomato products. What’s yours?

  • Spicy chili made with canned tomato sauce and canned diced tomatoes with green peppers and chilis
  • Homemade Pico de Gallo with canned whole tomatoes, diced onion, peppers and jalapenos
  • Steamy tomato basil soup with gooey grilled cheese
  • My grandmother’s stuffed cabbage slowly cooked in tomato juice
  • Black bean burritos with store-bought tomato salsa
  • Marinara sauce over any type of pasta
  • Bruschetta on crusty bread

Check out Tomato Wellness for more information on all things tomatoes and tasty recipes. And, want to know where you can get a  “Legalize Marinara” shirt  and other cool merchandise, click here. 100% of the proceeds are donated to men’s health and prostate cancer research at the Movember Foundation.

This November stock up on canned tomato products to make fall and winter classics to please the whole family and keep them healthy! And, that person who was judging my shopping cart full of processed foods?  I spotted him two aisles over with canned tomatoes in his cart!

For more tips on enjoying all of the foods in the grocery store, check out Food & Fitness After 50.

One last fun fact about tomatoes: Did you know that botanically tomato is a fruit, but in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court declared tomato a vegetable (it went to the court based on a tariff dispute!)

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor emerita at Georgia State University.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.