Q. I have been hearing a lot about tomatoes being good for you. Can I can get the same nutrition benefits from canned tomatoes as I do from fresh ones?

A. There is nothing like the taste of a ripe, homegrown tomato, but studies have shown that you can get the same health benefits from canned tomatoes as from fresh.Tomatoes are a great source of Vitamin C, but it has been discovered that tomatoes are even more nutritious because of their lycopene content. Lycopene is what gives the tomato its red color and is considered a carotenoid. A carotenoid is an antioxidant, which helps cells protect themselves against damage. Most people have heard about the cancer-fighting effects of antioxidants.

New studies also are being conducted on the potential for lycopene to help the body fight against cardiovascular disease. Lycopene in tomatoes acts like a scavenger, seeking out damaging oxygen free-radicals. Lycopene is even more potent than beta-carotene, which is found in carrots.

More good news about lycopene is that unlike a lot of vitamins, it becomes more readily available during cooking. It appears that cooking breaks down the cell walls of the tomato, which allows the body to better absorb the lycopene.

Lycopene also is better absorbed when it is consumed in processed tomato products such as tomato paste. The reason remains unclear, but in one study lycopene was absorbed 21/2 times better from tomato paste than from fresh tomatoes. Adding oil also seems to increase the absorption of the lycopene.

Americans consume an enormous amount of tomato products each year. Many Americans use tomato sauce on pasta and pizza; in stews, chilies and soups; and, of course, in ketchup. Ketchup leads the pack in concentration, but here is where advertising is somewhat misleading.

Ketchup contains lycopene and may help reduce some forms of cancer, but you would have to use half a cup of ketchup to get the same amount of lycopene as in a cup of tomato juice. We don't know about you, but that seems like quite a bit of ketchup on a burger.

Check out the comparisons of tomato products so you can decide what to incorporate into your daily diet.

Don't like tomatoes? That's OK. Lycopene also is found in apricots, papaya, pink grapefruit, guava and watermelon. Tomatoes lead the list in potency, but if you do not like tomatoes or have an allergy to them, these fruits provide other options.

Now that you know about the potential health benefits from eating foods rich in lycopene, try some of the following American Dietetic Association tips to add to your diet:

*Enjoy low-sodium tomato or vegetable juice as a refreshing and healthful snack any time of the day.

*When choosing soups, think tomato-based.

*Watermelon makes a light, fat-free dessert. Local produce is also economical.

*Wake up your taste buds with fresh pink grapefruit or pink grapefruit juice at breakfast.

*For a quick and simple dinner, open a jar of tomato-based sauce and pour over your favorite pasta. Top with steamed vegetables and grated cheese.

To make your own spaghetti sauce, here's an old family recipe:

Chop one medium onion and 1 to 2 cloves garlic. Saute in two tablespoons virgin olive oil until lightly browned.

Add one 15-ounce can of crushed tomatoes. Add one 8-ounce can tomato sauce, one 6-ounce can of tomato paste and 6 ounces of water.

Season to taste with salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano, basil and bay leaf. Add one teaspoon sugar (optional).

Stir until completely blended. Simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally.

This recipe serves six and can be doubled or even tripled when cooking for a crowd. Any kind of meatballs, sausage, steak or pork can be added for enhanced flavor and protein - just cook it longer (21/2 hours).

Janet R. Mayer is an adult-health nutritionist with the Guilford County Department of Public Health; Cindy Kearns is Healthy Strides director at Heritage Woods Senior Living in Winston-Salem. This nutrition-advice column is not a substitute for medical advice from your doctor. If you have a nutrition-related question, write to Healthy Life, c/o Life Department, News & Record, P.O. Box 20848, Greensboro, NC 27420. Questions cannot be answered personally. A comparison of nutritional values of tomato products.

Tomatoes - 1 cup raw, chopped

Calorie: 38

Total fat: 0.6 gram

Saturated fat: 0.1 gram

Monounsaturated fat: 0.1 gram

Polyunsaturated fat: 0.2 gram

Dietary fiber: 2 gram

Protein: 2 gram

Carbohydrates: 8 grams

Cholesterol: 0 milligrams

Sodium: 16 milligrams

Vitamin C: 34 milligrams

Sun-dried tomatoes - 2 ounces

Calories: 146

Total fat: 1.7 grams

Saturated fat: 0.2 gram

Monounsaturated fat: 0.3 gram

Polyunsaturated fat: 0.6 gram

Dietary fiber: 7 grams

Protein: 8 grams

Carbohydrates: 32 grams

Cholesterol: 0 milligrams

Sodium: 1188 milligrams

Vitamin C: 22 milligrams

Tomato juice - 1 cup canned


Calories: 41

Total fat: 0.2 gram

Saturated fat: 0.2 gram

Monounsaturated fat: 0 grams

Polyunsaturated fat: 0.1 gram

Dietary fiber: 1.9 grams

Protein: 2 grams

Carbohydrates: 10 grams

Cholesterol: 0 milligrams

Sodium: 24 milligrams

Vitamin C: 45 milligrams

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