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Tomatoes are enjoyed in many types of dishes, including sauces, salads, stews, soups, vegetable drinks and pizza. This fruit, or vegetable (both terms are legal), is also one of the most “in demand” in super markets, farm stands, and farmers markets across the United States.

Customers anticipate the arrival of tomato season, which seems too short, no matter where you live. And, everywhere, folks seek out vine ripened, flavorful fruit.

Some thin skin varieties seem to have the most flavor. But the thin skin usually means the variety does not ship well, so finding these varieties means a trip to the farmers market, or your own backyard.

In addition to flavor, tomatoes are a nutrient-dense superfood, providing an array of health benefits.

Tomatoes contain beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein which are powerful antioxidants that protect the eyes against the development of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Additionally, lycopene has been shown in studies to play a role in reducing LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, protecting us from heart disease. Lycopene has also been shown to protect the body from several types of cancer. The most abundant lycopene is found in heat-processed tomato products like tomato sauce.

Tomatoes are high in vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K, protecting and improving vision. One tomato contains about 40% of the daily vitamin C, a natural antioxidant, which also protects us from several types of cancer. Additionally, collagen, essential to our skin, hair, nails, and connective tissue health, is reliant on the presence of adequate vitamin C.

Tomatoes contain folate, also known as Vitamin B9, which is essential to brain and spine development during early pregnancy. It is important in red blood cell formation and plays a role in making DNA.

Tomatoes are high in potassium, choline, and are a good source of manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper which support heart health, protect our brain function, help control blood sugar, blood pressure and protect bone health, as well as, regulate several chemical processes in the body.

A pile of tomatoes (Courtesy photo)

These are just a few of the important nutrients in tomatoes. To be sure that you maximize your use of these important chemicals, consume cooked tomatoes, as well as, fresh tomatoes. Always store tomatoes at room temperature. Refrigeration breaks down the flavor and some of the beneficial compounds.

We have two tomato seasons in the Rio Grande Valley, and this is the harvest season for those planted in early spring. So, take advantage of the farmers markets and pick up a variety of tomatoes this weekend.

The Farmers Market in McAllen’s Firemen’s Park at 210 N. 1st St., has vine ripened, locally grown tomatoes from 9 a.m. to noon today. This traditional farmers market is open every Saturday morning with locally grown produce, microgreens, mushrooms and grass fed beef, jams and salsa, artisan baked goods and natural skin care products. Master Gardeners are available to answer gardening questions and to provide free gardening information and recipes to inspire you to prepare tomatoes in healthy ways that maximize their benefits. Take advantage of this time of year and enjoy tomatoes at their best in South Texas.

Barbara Storz is a local horticulturist who writes about plants that thrive in South Texas. You can follow her on Facebook.