Dive into Tomatoes for Sun Protection!

by Sharon Palmer, RD

The first warm rays of summer have arrived, and that means it’s time to seek refuge from the damaging effects of ultra-violet (UV) radiation.  Whether you’re at the beach, riding with the top down, or strolling the streets, every time you expose your skin to the sun you’re exposing yourself to the sun’s harmful UV rays. In fact, the CDC reports that each year more than one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed and that one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.

Sure, your best protection from UV radiation is to seek shade, don a hat, and use sunscreen, but growing evidence suggests that some natural compounds found in plants may protect you against damage caused by ultra-violet (UV) radiation.  Scientific research has found that the consumption of foods rich in carotenoids and flavonoids may offer sun protection.

In nature, carotenoids and flavonoids protect plants against excess light. And based on the scientific research completed to date, it appears that this protection may be conferred to people when they eat foods rich in carotenoids and flavonoids, too.  When you eat these foods, these compounds are distributed into tissues of your body that are exposed to the light such as your skin and eyes. In particular, carotenoids, lycopene and beta-carotene, which are powerful antioxidants found abundantly in tomato paste and tomato products, caught researchers’ attention.

A number of different research projects over the past few years have linked some natural compounds found in plants to protecting humans against damage caused by UV radiation. Researchers from Germany’s Heinrich-Heine University have been publishing a number of articles on the effects of plant compounds on UV radiation protection. In 2001, the Journal of Nutrition published a discovery by the German scientists that dietary tomato paste protects against UV-light induced erythema, or sunburn, in humans. In another study, published in 2005 in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, the researchers investigated the effects of supplementation with tomato-based products on the protection against UV-light induced erythema and found a more pronounced protective effect in the tomato extract and tomato extract/drink groups.  And, in 2007, Molecular Biotechnology reported on research findings that dietary micronutrients such as processed tomato products may contribute to life-long protection against harmful UV radiation because of the presence of powerful anti-oxidants like beta-carotene and lycopene which are capable of scavenging singlet molecular oxygen and peroxyl radicals caused by photo-oxidation.

So it looks like it can’t hurt to consume more tomato products this summer. Here are my favorite ways to include tomato products in your diet when the mercury rises.


Top Ways to Include Tomato Products in Your Diet This Summer

  • Marinate meats, chicken, and seafood in a tomato paste-based marinade. Simply open a can of tomato paste, stir in olive oil, fresh herbs, garlic, and balsamic vinegar and pour the marinade over meat for a few hours before you grill it.
  • Make a cold side salad featuring rice, pasta, quinoa or bulgur and stir in drained, canned tomatoes along with olives, green onions, feta cheese, fresh herbs and a splash of olive oil.
  • Stir tomato paste into sauteed ground beef with chili and garlic in order to make a hearty taco filling for tacos, burritos, and taco salads.
  • Turn up the heat on salsa—use it as a cool dip for chips and vegetables; top fresh fish with salsa before baking or grilling, and garnish whole wheat macaroni & cheese with salsa for color and spice.
  • It’s time for a fresh take on pizza—top a whole wheat or corn crust with tomato paste, and pile it high with grilled veggies, chicken and herbs.
  • Use up those abundant summer squashes in your garden by making a simple ratatouille. Here’s my favorite recipe: www.tomatowellness.com/recipes/12
  • What’s for dinner on a hot summer night?  How about chili con carne? You can make the chili in a crock pot to avoid heating up your kitchen, and serve it with a crisp green salad.  Check out this prize-winning chili recipe from the US Dry Bean Council www.usdrybeans.com/2010/08/daves-chili/

Sharon Palmer, RD

Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Expert