The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum, syn. Lycopersicon lycopersicum & Lycopersicon esculentum) is a herbaceous, usually sprawling plant in the Solanaceae or nightshade family, as are its close cousins potatoes, chili peppers, tobacco, eggplant and the poisonous belladonna. It is a perennial, often grown outdoors in temperate climates as an annual. Typically reaching to 1–3 metres (3–10 ft) in height, it has a weak, woody stem that often vines over other plants. The leaves are 10–25 centimetres (4–10 in) long, odd pinnate, with 5–9 leaflets on petioles, each leaflet up to 8 centimetres (3 in) long, with a serrated margin; both the stem and leaves are densely glandular-hairy. The flowers are 1–2 centimetres (0.4–0.8 in) across, yellow, with five pointed lobes on the corolla; they are borne in a cyme of 3–12 together.
The tomato is native to South America. Genetic evidence shows that the progenitors of tomatoes were herbaceous green plants with small green fruit with a center of diversity in the highlands of Peru. These early Solanums diversified into the dozen or so species of tomato recognized today. One species, Solanum lycopersicum, was transported to Mexico where it was grown and consumed by prehistoric humans. The exact date of domestication is not known. Evidence supports the theory the first domesticated tomato was a little yellow fruit, ancestor of L. cerasiforme, grown by the Aztecs of Central Mexico who called it xitomatl (pronounced [ʃiːˈtomatɬ]), meaning plump thing with a navel, and later called tomatl by other Mesoamerican peoples. Aztec writings mention tomatoes were prepared with peppers, corn and salt, likely to be the original salsa recipe.
Some people believe that the Spanish explorer Cortez may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan , now Mexico City in 1521. Yet others believe Christopher Columbus, an Italian working for the Spanish monarchy, was the first European to take back the tomato, earlier in 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in an herbal written in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who named it pomi d’oro, golden apple.
The word tomato comes from a word in the Nahuatl language, tomatl. The specific name, lycopersicum, means “wolf-peach” (compare the related species Solanum lycocarpum, whose scientific name means “wolf-fruit”, common name “wolf-apple”), as they are a major food of wild canids in South America.
Cultivation And Uses
The tomato is now grown worldwide for its edible fruits, with thousands of cultivars having been selected with varying fruit types, and for optimum growth in differing growing conditions. Cultivated tomatoes vary in size from tomberries, about 5mm in diameter, through cherry tomatoes, about the same 1–2 centimetres (0.4–0.8 in) size as the wild tomato, up to “beefsteak” tomatoes 10 centimetres (4 in) or more in diameter. The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the 5–6 centimetres (2.0–2.4 in) diameter range. Most cultivars produce red fruit; but a number of cultivars with yellow, orange, pink, purple, green, black, or white fruit are also available. Multicolored and striped fruit can also be quite striking. Tomatoes grown for canning and sauces are often elongated, 7–9 centimetres (3–4 in) long and 4–5 centimetres (1.6–2.0 in) diameter; they are known as plum tomatoes, and have a lower water content. Roma-type tomatoes are important cultivars in the Sacramento Valley where a 120-acre Morning Star cannery handles 1.2 million pounds of tomatoes an hour during the harvest season where the fields yield about 40 tons to the acre.
Tomatoes are one of the most common garden fruits in the United States and, along with zucchini, have a reputation for outproducing the needs of the grower.
As in most sectors of agriculture, there is increasing demand in developed countries for organic tomatoes, as well as heirloom tomatoes, to make up for flavor and texture faults in commercial tomatoes. Quite a few seed merchants and banks provide a large selection of heirloom seeds. Tomato seeds are occasionally organically produced as well, but only a small percentage of organic crop area is grown with organic seed. The definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, but unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-pollinators who have bred true for 40 years or more.
Picking And Ripening
Tomatoes are often picked unripe (and thus colored green) and ripened in storage with ethylene. Unripe tomatoes are firm, as they ripen they soften until reaching the ripe state where they are red or orange in color and slightly soft to the touch. Ethylene is a hydrocarbon gas produced by many fruits that acts as the molecular cue to begin the ripening process. Tomatoes ripened in this way tend to keep longer but have poorer flavor and a mealier, starchier texture than tomatoes ripened on the plant. They may be recognized by their color, which is more pink or orange than the other ripe tomatoes’ deep red.
In 1994 Calgene introduced a genetically modified tomato called the ‘FlavrSavr’ which could be vine ripened without compromising shelf life. However, the product was not commercially successful (see main article for details) and was only sold until 1997.
Recently, stores have begun selling “tomatoes on the vine”, which are determinate varieties that are ripened or harvested with the fruits still connected to a piece of vine. These tend to have more flavor than artificially ripened tomatoes (at a price premium), but still may not be the equal of local garden produce.
Slow-ripening cultivars of tomato have been developed by crossing a non-ripening cultivar with ordinary tomato cultivars. Cultivars were selected whose fruits have a long shelf life and at least reasonable flavor.
Modern Uses And Nutrition
Tomatoes are now eaten freely throughout the world, and their consumption is believed to benefit the heart among other things. They contain lycopene, one of the most powerful natural antioxidants, which, especially when tomatoes are cooked, has been found to help prevent prostate cancer. However, other research contradicts this claim. Lycopene has also been shown to improve the skin’s ability to protect against harmful UV rays. Natural genetic variation in tomatoes and their wild relatives has given a genetic treasure trove of genes that produce lycopene, carotene, anthocyanin, and other antioxidants. Tomato varieties are available with double the normal vitamin C (Doublerich), 40 times normal vitamin A (97L97), high levels of anthocyanin (P20 Blue), and two to four times the normal amount of lycopene (numerous available cultivars with the high crimson gene).
Though it is botanically a berry, a subset of fruit, the tomato is nutritionally categorized as a vegetable (see below). Since “vegetable” is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in a plant part being a fruit botanically while still being considered a vegetable.
Tomatoes are used extensively in Mediterranean cuisine, especially Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines. The tomato is acidic; this acidity makes tomatoes especially easy to preserve in home canning whole, in pieces, as tomato sauce, or paste. Tomato juice is often canned and sold as a beverage; Unripe green tomatoes can also be breaded and fried, used to make salsa, or pickled. The fruit is also preserved by drying, often by sun, and sold either in bags or in jars in oil.
Most tomatoes today are picked before fully ripened. They are bred to continue ripening, but the enzyme that ripens tomatoes stops working when it reaches temperatures below 12.5°C (54.5°F). Once an unripe tomato drops below that temperature, it will not continue to ripen. Once fully ripe, tomatoes can be stored in the refrigerator but are best kept at room temperature. Tomatoes stored in the refrigerator tend to lose flavor, but will still be edible; thus the “Never Refrigerate” stickers sometimes placed on tomatoes in supermarkets.
Fruit or vegetable?
Botanically, a tomato is the ovary, together with its seeds, of a flowering plant: therefore it is a fruit. However, the tomato is not as sweet as those foodstuffs usually called fruits and, from a culinary standpoint, it is typically served as part of a salad or main course of a meal, as are vegetables, rather than at dessert in the case of most fruits. As noted above, the term vegetable has no botanical meaning and is purely a culinary term. Originally the controversy was that tomatoes are treated as a fruit in home canning practices. Tomatoes are acidic enough to be processed in a water bath rather than a pressure cooker as “vegetables” require.
This argument has had legal implications in the United States. In 1887, U.S. tariff laws that imposed a duty on vegetables but not on fruits caused the tomato’s status to become a matter of legal importance. The U.S. Supreme Court settled the controversy on May 10, 1893 by declaring that the tomato is a vegetable, based on the popular definition that classifies vegetables by use, that they are generally served with dinner and not dessert (Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304)). The holding of the case applies only to the interpretation of the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883, and the court did not purport to reclassify the tomato for botanical or other purpose. Tomatoes have been designated the state vegetable of New Jersey. Arkansas took both sides by declaring the “South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato” to be both the state fruit and the state vegetable in the same law, citing both its culinary and botanical classifications. In 2006, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a law that would have declared the tomato to be the official state fruit, but the bill died when the Ohio Senate failed to act on it. However, in April 2009 a new form of the bill passed, making the tomato the official fruit of the state of Ohio. Tomato juice has been the official beverage of Ohio since 1965. A.W. Livingston, of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, played a large part in popularizing the tomato in the late 1800s.
Due to the scientific definition of a fruit, the tomato remains a fruit when not dealing with US tariffs. Nor is it the only culinary vegetable that is a botanical fruit: eggplants, cucumbers, and squashes of all kinds (such as zucchini and pumpkins) share the same ambiguity.
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