Tomatoes are the second-most popular “vegetable” (botanically speaking, they’re a fruit) in the world. That’s great, because there are so many wonderful health benefits to reap from tomatoes’ disease-fighting plant chemicals—especially from the powerhouse nutrient lycopene, which gives tomatoes their deep red color. Lycopene also is a powerful antioxidant that protects against free radicals—the destructive molecules that disrupt cells and contribute to premature aging, tissue damage and many degenerative diseases. Five key facts about lycopene…

Cancer protection: Research has found that lycopene helps protect against certain types of cancer, including prostate, lung and stomach cancers.

Cardio protection: Lycopene is especially effective at guarding against cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis of 25 studies found that high lycopene consumption (about two tomatoes or one-half cup of tomato sauce daily) was associated with a 26% reduction in stroke risk, a 37% reduction in death from all causes and a 14% reduction in cardiovascular disease.

Tomatoes = lycopene: While many foods, including guava, watermelon, papaya, apricots and pink grapefruit, are rich in lycopene, more than 80% of the dietary lycopene consumed in the US comes from tomato products.

Color matters: For the highest lycopene content, choose red, dark purple and black tomatoes over yellow ones. These deep-colored tomatoes contain much more lycopene.

Cook your tomatoes: Cooking breaks down cells where the lycopene is stored so that more of it is available to be absorbed by your body. Processing and condensing tomatoes, such as for tomato paste, also concentrates the lycopene content—think pasta or pizza sauce.

Cooked cherry tomatoes are an especially easy way to get more tomatoes into your daily fare. I slice them and sauté them with garlic and fresh basil in extra-virgin olive oil for a simple pasta sauce or topping for fish. Cooked tomatoes go well with flatbread creations…and, of course, caprese salad topped with a sweet balsamic glaze is another delicious way to eat tomatoes. To get the most health benefits from lycopene, try to eat tomatoes every day.

To help you do that, try this flavorful recipe. Extra-virgin olive oil enhances lycopene absorption and adds its own antioxidant boost.

Roasted Tomatoes with Garlic

Yield: 8 servings, about one-half cup each.

2 pounds plum tomatoes (preferably organically grown)
4 garlic cloves, cut lengthwise into slivers
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Drizzle of balsamic reduction glaze
½ cup chopped fresh basil (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 450°F, with rack in center position. Lightly oil a shallow baking pan. Cut tomatoes in half crosswise, and arrange cut side up in the pan. Stud each tomato half with slivers of garlic, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle tomatoes evenly with olive oil and balsamic reduction glaze. Roast until soft and wilted, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, garnish with fresh basil and serve warm. Yum!

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