Taste and nutrition as well as the health benefits of tomatoes have been highly valued. Enjoyed all over the world, they are essential ingredients in the diets of many cultures. Yet the plant has a spotty past, including myths, misconceptions and controversy, and the challenges of modern mass production of the tomato continue to spark debate. Yet there is no debate over the intrinsic health benefits of the tomato. The tomato is treasured for its nutritional value as much as for its delicious taste.
History of the Tomato
Peru is generally credited with first cultivating of the fruit now known as the tomato. The tomatoes of that day were tiny compared to modern tomatoes, but were already a valued food, bred for flavor. From Peru, the tomato spread through Southern and Central America. Mexico’s Aztecs prized them, using them extensively in their cooking, including salsa. When the Spanish invaded Mexico during the early 1500’s, the Aztecs developed a new, gruesome recipe involving tomatoes. The fruit was served with the flesh of the Spanish invaders.
Some believe it was the Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortés who brought the tomato to Europe after conquering the Aztec capital, Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City. Others believe Christopher Columbus brought plants back to Europe with him as early as 1493. An Italian herbal document in 1544 mentions the tomato as pomo d’oro, or golden apple. In 1597, English surgeon John Gerard published an herbal declaring that the tomato was poisonous and not to be eaten, prompting a century or two of excluding the fruit from British and colonial diets.
Several theories exist as to why so many believed the tomato was poison. One theory puts the blame on pewter plates, which had a high lead content. Acidic food like tomatoes caused some of the lead to leach into the food, leading to lead poisoning. However, lead poisoning occurs so gradually, over such a long period of time, that many consider it unlikely that the tomato would have been identified as the cause. A more likely theory is that the tomato is considered a member of the nightshade family of plants. Indeed, the tomato leaf is not safe to eat. Eating tomato leaves can cause vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness, and in severe cases, can lead to death.
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