This research has looked to find the best open-pollinated tomato varieties in the world for human health, particularly those highest in lycopene for cancer prevention.
Following the world-wide search for heritage tomato varieties conducted by the HFCRT, New Zealanders now have the opportunity to grow what we consider to be ‘real’ tomatoes that contain a more bioavailable form of lycopene. The Trust makes seeds of these varieties freely available as a wellbeing initiative for all New Zealanders.
The Secret to Our Health Lies in Older Varieties
A search for the best tomatoes for health has uncovered rare heritage varieties that contain a different form of lycopene that is easily absorbed when eaten raw.
Up to now it was generally understood that you needed to cook your tomatoes in order to improve the absorption of lycopene, the powerful antioxidant that appears to exert positive effects upon human health. But the latest New Zealand research shows that the need to cook your tomatoes only relates to modern varieties and may be due to a fundamental flaw in breeding the first red tomatoes.
Eight years of research by the Whanganui based Heritage Food Crops Research Trust (HFCRT) culminated in a human trial at Plant & Food Research in Palmerston North to test the lycopene absorption of a golden/orange heritage tomato called ‘Moonglow’ in comparison with a red heritage variety called ‘Rosalita’.
Trial participants were fed one variety of diced raw tomatoes in a simple meal, and then blood samples were taken at 4, 7 and 24 hours to determine how much lycopene had passed through their intestinal walls and was circulating in their blood. This was followed by a 2 week break before the second tomato variety was eaten and further blood tests were taken.
As expected only small amounts of lycopene from the red tomato variety was detected, however the big surprise was the significant amount of lycopene present from the golden/orange variety, especially after 24 hours – when the amount of lycopene was at its highest.
“It is amazing to realise that 24 hours after eating these raw golden/orange tomatoes they are still providing significant health benefits,” said Mark Christensen, research director for the HFCRT. “We have a wonderful opportunity to improve health outcomes for people by eating the right foods, and these particular golden/orange varieties are far superior in that regard compared to tomatoes of other colours (including red).”
The underlying reasons for this significant difference appear to relate to the chemistry and history of tomato.
The original tomatoes that were introduced into Europe in the 1520’s had been found cultivated as varieties in Mexico. Those original tomatoes were named ‘Pomodoro’, which in Italian means ‘golden apple’. The HFCRT believes that those original golden tomatoes contained the easily absorbable tetra-cis-lycopene, which has a bent molecular structure and is easily absorbed by the human body when consumed as a raw food – in a salad or picked and eaten straight from the vine. It is believed that the ‘Moonglow’ tomato and other golden/orange varieties that have been chemically analysed and shown to contain tetra-cis-lycopene are strains from those original golden fruit.
Unfortunately when the first Europeans crossed tomatoes to introduce the red colour to improve their consumer appeal, they were not aware that the beneficial easily absorbed form of lycopene was a recessive gene and would be replaced by the dominant red form of lycopene called all-trans-lycopene. This is the form of lycopene in our modern red tomatoes and has a linear molecular structure that cannot pass easily into the bloodstream unless subjected to intense heat. “We would like to think that if this had been known over 450 years ago they may have considered the red tomatoes inappropriate for human consumption and stuck with the golden ones, or at least changed their name to reflect the significant difference that occurred through the breeding process.”
It is generally known that raw food is better for us, so it has always been an anomaly to be told that tomatoes should be cooked in order to improve the health benefits from their lycopene content. Now with this research we are able to get a better understanding of the detrimental effects that commercial breeding can have in changing the inherent health benefits of the original golden tomatoes. Given that commercial breeding practices have changed little over the 450 years since this mistake was made with tomato, this should be a red flag to all those who undertake this practice and even more importantly a clarion call to all those around the world who save old seed varieties. Without those dedicated individuals and small (mainly non-profit) organisations that have recognized the inherent value of this diverse gene pool of material, we would not now have the varieties to find and return to. If we are to learn from Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who said “let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”, then we and our future generations will need these seeds to keep us well.
A story for children about the very special properties of golden-orange tomatoes, written and illustrated by Janet Bradbury.
We welcome you to download a copy of the book to print or read from your computer for free.
‘Jessica and the Golden Orb’ was featured by the Wanganui Midweek newspaper in the article ‘Tomato stars in new book’.
Discovery of the Real Tomato
We are delighted to announce a break-through in our understanding about the superior health benefits of specific tomato varieties.
Two types of lycopene can be found in tomato. All-trans-lycopene is commonly found in red (and other colour) tomatoes; and tetra-cis-lycopene (also known as prolycopene) is found in some heirloom tomatoes within the golden to orange and tangerine colour spectrum.
Note that not all tomatoes with the colour will contain tetra-cis-lycopene, as some will contain beta-carotene instead, which exhibits the same colour. Hence, it is necessary to have varieties chemically analysed to determine whether they contain tetra-cis-lycopene or whether the colour is exhibited from the beta-carotene in the tomato.
It has been known for some time that all-trans-lycopene is not well absorbed by the human body: hence the advice to eat cooked tomatoes so the body can better absorb the lycopene. The linear configuration of the all-trans-lycopene molecule seems to hinder its absorption through human intestinal walls and into the blood, according to Steven Schwartz from Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Centre.
However tetra-cis-lycopene is much better absorbed by the body — in fact two and a half times better! The structure of this lycopene molecule conforms more closely with the lycopene found circulating in human blood.
Realising that the cultivated common tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) was originally a golden-orange colour is a key piece of the puzzle. This was the colour of the first tomatoes found by the Spanish in Mexico in the early 1500s and taken back to Europe. When they arrived in Italy, they were named pomodoro: “golden apple”.
It is our hypothesis that these golden tomatoes contained the tetra-cis form of lycopene and that they were highly beneficial for human health, as the tetra-cis-lycopene would have been easily absorbed through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream.
Later, when breeding of tomatoes began, they were bred purely for consumer appeal to be red. Unfortunately for 400 years there has been a lack of understanding about the consequences of that breeding approach.
The beneficial tetra-cis-lycopene is a recessive gene, and as systematic breeding took place, this recessive gene was replaced by the more dominant all-trans-lycopene gene.
In order to correct this mistake, we must go back to the past to re-discover the old original tomatoes that still contain the correct composition of beneficial compounds for human health. This is the focus of our research. We believe we have found the indicator that we have been searching for: tetra-cis lycopene. We believe that the varieties that still contain this compound have retained sufficient elements of their original genetic makeup to be the correct platform from which to take tomatoes into the future.
One of the great challenges for people at this time is the lack of understanding of the consequences of our actions. We have a vast amount of knowledge and technical skill, but we appear to lack the wisdom to know when to apply them and when not to. Tomato is one of the most widely eaten fruits in the world and as such could play a major role in reducing heart disease and cancer — but only if we eat the varieties with high levels of beneficial compounds. However the unrestrained commercial breeding of tomatoes has led to a disturbing reduction in their actual medicinal benefit.
We are now beginning the second phase of our tomato research, concentrating on growing those varieties that are high in tetra-cis-lycopene and distributing them throughout New Zealand communities.
Based on what we have learnt from years of research into apples and tomatoes — that commercially bred varieties contain reduced levels of beneficial compounds — we will not “breed” these orange tomatoes, cross them or in any other way artificially manipulate them.
However we will encourage members of our community to become part of this next phase of the research – to actively participate by growing these plants with love. This is the most important ingredient that we can share, along with our intention to be open to these plants further evolving, so that their fruits will contain the very best qualities for human health and wellbeing. In this way we wish to create through our positive intention, and to allow the consequences to freely manifest.
Moonglow tomatoes also make a terrific centrepiece!
Invitation to New Zealand Tomato Growers
The Heritage Food Crops Research Trust began researching heirloom tomatoes in 2007. This has culminated with the finding of varieties that contain a better form of lycopene (known as tetra-cis-lycopene) that has been shown in studies in the United States to be 2.5 times more efficiently absorbed by the body than the all-trans-lycopene found in red tomatoes. The tetra-cis-lycopene is found in certain golden orange heirloom tomatoes and the Trust has imported seed of these varieties for its research.
Lycopene that can be absorbed, finds its way into the blood where because it is a powerful antioxidant, it protects cells and essential fatty acids (“the good fats”) against oxidation.
We believe that there is a wonderful opportunity to improve human health by replacing red tomatoes with these orange tomatoes. Tomato is the primary source of lycopene for human consumption. We know that it is a powerful biological antioxidant and scientific studies have shown that high lycopene intake is associated with decreased risk of heart disease and cancer, especially prostate cancer.
We also ask growers to keep an eye out for any possible changes as the varieties may potentially evolve naturally over time. We wish to avoid the mistakes made by commercial breeders in the past who have diminished the levels of beneficial compounds in today’s modern tomatoes. Rather than try and control the breeding process, as commercial breeders do, we would like to try an alternative approach.
Our objective is to have the best tomatoes in the world for human health and we would like individuals who share this intent to join us, to grow these tomatoes with this intention and with love. It is an open-source project in that people will be free to grow and sell their produce or plants or give them away to others. We just ask that you don’t physically manipulate the varieties to try and cross them. Just allow this to happen naturally, if that is what is meant to happen, and if you notice that a change has occurred in the variety, then please share a few seeds back with us, so that we can monitor and analyse the ongoing development of these fruits.
Science now recognises that scientists can influence the outcomes of their experiments just by wanting a particular outcome and hence the modern advent and use of double-blind trials. We believe that a person’s intention when they plant a seed can influence the growth and development of that plant. We would like to couple that with research into whether outcomes are not as random as has previously been thought. Einstein used to say that “God does not play dice” (allowing for each person’s individual interpretation for the term “God”), perhaps life has more meaning than we may have previously attributed to it. Perhaps there are external factors and natural laws that affect man. Perhaps we have a creative ability through our intention that can influence the outcome of events. Our research intends to explore these possibilities through the medium of “tomatoes”.
Contact us if you would like to be a part of our research and trial one of these varieties.