We've been told time and time again to eat more vegetables. But it seems Americans are really only eating two: potatoes and tomatoes. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says these two vegetables (yes, technically tomatoes are fruits) account for almost half of US consumers' veggie intake.

In 2013, each American consumed almost 50 pounds of potatoes and nearly 31 pounds of tomatoes. Unfortunately, the USDA says the majority of those two vegetables weren't fresh. More than half the potatoes available to consumers were frozen or processed (for potato chips, French fries, canned potatoes, and other similar preparations). The same goes for tomatoes: More than half the tomatoes available to US consumers came in the form of canned tomatoes, tomato sauces, or as an ingredient in prepared foods.

Thankfully, tomatoes are one of the healthier choices for favored vegetables. We asked Dr. Mark Menolascino, M.D., a key medical opinion leader at Lycored, to answer a few common questions about tomatoes.

CL: Which is healthier: raw or cooked tomatoes?MM: Raw vegetables, particularly organic vegetables, are always better than cooked. The heat process can alter nutrient bioavailability as well as denature or ‘unwrap’ certain proteins in foods. Always take care to wash off all vegetables, even the organic as travel, storage, and store shelf life causes exposure to other chemicals not used in the growing process that may contaminate your produce. Tomatoes do not have to be red only—all of the different colors have high ORAC (antioxidant) values, and personally I believe in the colors of the rainbow and like to vary the different colors. I tell my clients to eat 5 to 6 different colors per day, and varying your tomatoes is an easy way to accomplish this to get great carotenoids, vitamin C and other antioxidants. Xeanthannin, a unique compound found in high concentrations in tomatoes, has been shown to be protect our skin from UV light damage.

CL: Which is best for what types of nutrient needs? For example, people who need more licopene may need to eat tomatoes one way over  another.MM: Several controversies exist over using the skin of certain vegetables, and tomatoes are no exception. Obviously that is a key reason to go organic. Pesticides and other toxins can concentrate on the skin of vegetables and fruits and many people, including me, avoid the skin of many fruits and vegetables. Although fiber in the skin is good for you and may act as a pre-biotic food source to your probiotics and microbiome, I wonder how well most of us digest tomato skin. I have noticed in my compost pile in the spring I can still see the tomato skin from my pasta sauce from the fall! Also, when making sauce, the skin makes a bitter taste, so that gives me another reason to avoid the skin. There is enough fiber in the tomato, and don’t forget you lose that with tomato juice, and most commercial tomato juice is very high is sodium additives, so watch out for this sneaky salt load.

CL: Do foods like all-natural ketchups or tomato sauces retain any of the healthy tomato benefits?MM: My daughter, foodie in training, was reading me the ketchup bottle label at dinner at a restaurant. Guess what was the first two ingredients?

High fructose corn syrup, then sugar, THEN tomatoes. Half of the tablespoon of ketchup serving was sugar! Of course, the natural organic ketchups are better than other commercial brands, yet I am not a fan of ketchup and really most condiments, except for natural mustards and organic natural spices. Most of my clients that ‘must have’ some of these condiments lose the taste for them after avoiding them and will not enjoy them once they return to the plate. Once you lose your sweet tooth, or ‘sugar tooth,’ you find the added sugar to products doesn’t taste good. Once you process a food in any way, you are altering the natural state. However, your digestive tract must have a good microbiome, you must have enough digestive enzyme and stomach acid to break down the food so that you make those nutrients bioavailable. So the key is not only the quality of food you put in, but the quality of the processing factory that utilizes it—YOU!

CL: Is there any nutrition on the tomato skin?MM: There was a study done on the tomato peel showing very high lycopene levels and antioxidant score with other nutrients, so it would seem to make sense to utilize some of the peel. However the poor digestibility of the skin may limit the ability of the body to utilize these components. While I am a huge proponent of "Let food be thy medicine," I do feel that certain nutraceuticals, such as Lycored carotenoids, have a solid place in supporting our antioxidant pathways to support our physiology while we also optimize our food choices.

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