Who’s Afraid of Tomatoes?

Tomatoes are an important part of our modern diet. From catsup to soup to sauce to salsa, they pop up in many places. A New World discovery, tomatoes originally grew as wild plants in the Andes Mountains. They were eaten by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD. Today they are grown in thousands of varieties around the world (https://weseedchange.org/where-do-tomatoes-come-from/).

That’s a good thing, because they are a very beneficial fruit. According to “Tomatoes 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits,” they are low in carbohydrates, a good source of several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K, and folate, and may even reduce the risk of heart disease and several cancers (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods/tomatoes#bottom-line).

And yet… You may have heard of a darker side. The tomato was feared in Europe for over 200 years. They are members of the nightshade family, a plant family with known toxic compounds, so for that reason alone they were slow to gain acceptance as food. Worse, some aristocrats reportedly got sick and died after eating them, which earned them the nickname “poison apple.” Yet the tomatoes weren’t the culprits at all. It seems European aristocracy used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because of the fruit’s high acidity, lead would leach from the plate, resulting in lead poisoning. Since it took awhile to figure that out, tomatoes received the blame. This does happen in history — remember, fleas carried the Black Plague, not rats, even though eliminating the rats removed the danger. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-the-tomato-was-feared-in-europe-for-more-than-200-years-863735/).

By the way, tomatoes aren’t entirely benign — the plant’s leaves and stems are considered toxic. But beyond that, feel free to consume tomatoes in any form you’d like without fear of being poisoned.

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