When I was shopping in the produce section the other day, I saw a bright sticker on the packaged tomatoes touting “tomatoes contain lycopene.” While this is true, it needs a little further explanation so that you maximize the benefit of this cartenoid. What is lycopene anyway? It’s a powerful phytochemical that is released and becomes available to your body as you nosh on your yummy tomatoes. Lycopene is one of the important reasons that tomatoes are so good for you. Tomatoes are loaded with it. It’s one of the reasons that they are cancer-fighters, as well as infection-fighters. In addition to lycopene, tomatoes contain a long list of other important nutrients that help neutralize harmful oxygen-free radicals before they can do damage to the cells of your body. This is one of the reasons that eating fruits and veggies are so important to keeping you healthy. You now know that lycopene is plentiful in raw tomatoes, but you may not know that lycopene in tomatoes becomes much more bioavailable (which means more useful to your body) when the tomatoes are cooked. In other words, heat breaks down the cell walls of the tomatoes and this, in turn, releases the lycopene. This phytochemical is fat-soluble meaning that a cooked tomato in olive oil, for example, is even better at helping your body to receive the benefits. When cooking tomatoes, the sign to look for that tells you the cell walls are opened and the lycopene is being released is what I like to call the “orange up” factor. You will notice when you start a tomato sauce that the overall color and tone of the uncooked sauce is pink, and after about 30 minutes of cooking, the color changes to an orange color and tone. This “orange up” is your indication that lycopene has been released. Interestingly, green and yellow tomatoes do not have lycopene. But, the redder the tomato, the more lycopene it contains. Do you know why BPA in cans of tomatoes is so important? With such a high acid content ingredient as tomatoes, the type of can and the welding used in making the can might be important. An acid food like tomatoes can leach chemicals out of some materials and into your meal. To take the best advantage of the health promoting benefit of lycopene, look for organic tomatoes that are packed in cans or jars labeled BPA-free when you are planning to use pre-prepared tomatoes. We all know that BPA has been implicated in health problems. Also, while many countries have fantastically flavorful tomatoes, the standards for lead content in the cans may not be as strict as they are in the U.S. Why do I love cooking with tomatoes? Tomato sauce turns many meals into delicious, cancer-fighting and health building powerhouses. A good tomato sauce can dress up pasta, polenta, and just about any meat or fish dish. Here is a really easy recipe that is not only one of my favorite tomato recipes, but it also really releases the power of lycopene. I like to make this sauce because it’s very simple and it’s made from “very likely to be in the pantry” ingredients. If you have fresh basil, great, but if not, dried basil makes a delicious sauce, too. My family likes this with roasted spaghetti squash and a few breaded mozzarella sticks on the side. My favorite cookware is Le Creuset, which I’ll share more about in a future post, but whatever cookware you have will still produce a delicious sauce. What do you think of this recipe? Please let me know in the comments below. As I always say, I will never tell you what you should eat, only how to cook something to maximize its nutritional benefit. For more information on this topic, check out the following resources used in this article: Prescription for Dietary Wellness The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods Certified Natural Chef Monica Sallouti’s lifelong passion for delicious nutritious food comes from both her formal training and time spent in the kitchens of her two grandmothers as a young girl. She honed her culinary skills and nutritional education at the Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts program at Bauman College in Penngrove, CA. The specialty of nutrition for Chef Sallouti was sparked after a health crisis some 19 years ago. In her late 20’s, she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. As part of her “treatment,” she developed a keen awareness of the inextricable link between food, cooking and health. Now, 19+ years later, Sallouti brings her knowledge, culinary creativity and care to both her clients.