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I’m Asian-American, but I was adopted when I was four months old into an Italian-American family. Many of my favorite family recipes use fresh or canned tomatoes – from traditional marinara to our special stuffed shells, there is seldom a dish without tomato in our repertoire.
It seems like tomatoes would be great for your skin – many fruits and vegetable extracts, like pomegranate, have mild photoprotective effects, whether applied to the skin or ingested. And two of the major nutrients in tomatoes, lycopene and beta-carotene, have notable antioxidant activity. For instance, higher concentrations of both nutrients are found in non-smokers than smokers (Applied Physics, 2005), indicating that these are important in scavenging potentially harmful free radicals. And lycopene is depleted more quickly than beta-carotene after exposure to environmental stressors, indicating that lycopene is more active than beta-carotene in fighting free radical formation (The Journal of Nutrition, 1995).
Yet extra lycopene or beta-carotene could subject your skin to harm. Matrix metalloproteinases are enzymes that degrade collagen. At least one study shows applying lycopene or beta-carotene increases matrix metalloproteinase formation 1.5 to 2 times after UVA light exposure! (Free Radical Biology and Medicine, 2002)
However, the same study found this effect was reversed when vitamin E was added to the mix. That’s good news for the Yes to Tomatoes line, which includes a number of antioxidants besides lycopene and beta-carotene.
But, of course, never buy a skin care product just because it contains lycopene and beta-carotene, if that study is any indication. The case is similar for ingredients like citrus extracts, which seem healthy, but are really photosensitizing, subjecting your skin to more damage.
What About Eating Tomatoes?
This is an interesting one. Tomatoes are on the acidic side, and some dermatologists recommend a slightly alkaline diet consisting of many leafy green vegetables for better skin (The Revolutionary 2-Week pH Diet, 2008). Of course, the interesting part here is that your body regulates pH levels very tightly. So whether or not ingesting the foods in this diet is helpful truly because of their higher pH, or simply because they have many nutrients, antioxidants, and other anti-inflammatory agents, remains to be seen.
But the more interesting dilemma with tomatoes is the BPA found in canned tomatoes. “You can get 50 mcg of BPA per liter out of a tomato can, and that’s a level that is going to impact people, particularly the young,” says Fredrick vom Saal, an endocrinologist at the University of Missouri. “I won’t go near canned tomatoes.” (source)
Is BPA Really That Bad?
Unlike many ingredients that are beneficial in products but rumored on the internet to be unsafe (like parabens), BPA is different. A common ingredient in many hard plastics, BPA may interfere with hormones, impacting the human reproductive system. Upon initial review, the FDA concluded that BPA was safe in products. However, in September of 2008, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) concluded that there is “some concern” for adverse effects on the “brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children.” (American Scientist, 2010). This concern prompted members of Congress to pressure the FDA to take another look, an investigation which is still ongoing (FDA.gov).
I personally still have a lot of respect for the FDA – their comprehensive reviews of controversial studies maintain scientific integrity and due process, despite public pressure to outlaw a lot of ingredients that are rumored to be harmful. So if they are still debating on the safety of BPA, I would stay away from it until they conclude whether or not it is safe.
If you love Italian food as much as I do, chances are, you need to use canned tomatoes for a few recipes. One alternative is to buy a tomato pate from a healthy food source like Holland and Barrett.com – mixed with fresh tomatoes and a little garlic and basil, it’s actually better than canned tomatoes. Another is to use tomato sauce from glass jars, which do not have BPA.
What do you think about tomatoes – yay or nay?