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updated 2/25/2004 12:02:11 PM ET 2004-02-25T17:02:11

New research shows that eating something tomato-ey nearly every day may lower your risk for heart disease by up to 50 percent -- that even includes the ketchup on your fries! Registered dietitian, Elizabeth Somer, author of The Food & Mood, gives advice and recipes to eat your way to a healthy heart.

What's all the hubbub about tomatoes?
It's a new study from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Researchers analyzed blood samples from more than 28,000 women and found that over the following 4.8 years women with the highest blood levels of lycopene had up to a 50% lower risk for developing heart disease. Their blood levels of lycopene reflected their dietary intake.

Lyco what?
Lycopene is one of hundreds of carotenoids in food, beta carotene being the most famous. Lycopene is a pigment in red fruits and vegetables; tomatoes are the richest source of lycopene, but other good sources include watermelon, papaya, pink grapefruit, and guava. (Strawberries are red, but they get their color from another compound other than lycopene.) Unlike beta carotene, lycopene cannot be converted to vitamin A in the body, but it is an even more potent antioxidant than beta carotene, which might be one of the reasons why lycopene lowers heart disease risk. It also might explain why diets rich in lycopene are associated with lower risks for all sorts of cancers, especially cancers of the prostate, cervix, skin, bladder, breast, lung and digestive tract. Eating a lot of lycopene-rich foods also might help protect skin from sun damage.

How much lycopene do we need to lower our risk for heart disease?
No one is completely sure, but studies show that people who include anywhere from 7 to 10 servings a week of lycopene-rich foods have the lowest risk for heart disease. It also looks like blood levels of this heart-healthy compound decrease with age, so the older we are the more we need. What we do know is that the more fruits and vegetables you eat the better, and there is no evidence that lycopene-rich foods are harmful at any dose.

For example, the women with the lowest heart-disease risk in the Harvard study averaged about 10 milligrams or more of lycopene a day, that's the equivalent of about a ½ cup of tomato sauce daily. The average American gets only 3.6 milligrams, or slightly more than a third of that. It's not difficult to boost your lycopene intake. Since we're supposed to include 8 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily in our daily menu, just make sure one or two of those are tomatoes, any tomato product, or other lycopene-rich foods, such as the ones we have here.

Is lycopene best absorbed from raw or cooked foods?  And aside from eating these food raw, how can we include lycopene-rich tomatoes into our diets?
Lycopene is best absorbed and most helpful to the body when it comes from cooked and processed foods. That's because heat helps breakdown cell walls, releasing the lycopene and making it easier for the body to absorb.

What about fresh tomatoes? Are they a good source of lycopene?
Yes, just not quite as good as tomato paste, sauce, and canned tomatoes. But a fresh tomato still adds about 4 to 5 milligrams of lycopene to your diet and studies show that people who include 7 or more fresh tomatoes into their weekly diet have up to a 60% reduction in cancer. Make sure you choose deep-red tomatoes, since they have more lycopene than pale ones or yellow or green tomatoes. Vine-ripened tomatoes have more than those picked green and allowed to ripen later. And, those grown outdoors in the summer have more lycopene than those grown in greenhouses.

You need a little fat along with the tomato to help boost absorption of lycopene. That's easy enough to do when you add tomatoes to a tossed salad that has a little dressing along with it, layer them into a sandwich, such as a Toasted Tomato and Fresh Basil on Sourdough, which takes only 5 to 10 minutes to make and has a bit of olive oil to aid in lycopene absorption, or mix them with green beans like in a Green and Red Chunky Salad with Oregano that also has just a touch of olive oil. For a quick-fix snack you could fill hollowed-out cherry tomatoes with tuna salad, hummus, or left-over couscous.

Other sources of lycopene
A cup of watermelon supplies almost your entire day's need for lycopene for only 50 calories! Or, peel a pink grapefruit (must be pink...the yellow kind doesn't have much lycopene) and sprinkle with some sugar or Splenda if you're watching calories and carbs, and you have a chin-dribbling snack that supplies 1/3 of your daily need for lycopene. For an absolutely delicious and light dessert, slices of papaya are a great accompaniment to a Low-fat Panna Cotta with Raspberry Sauce.

Tomatoes pack a nutritious bang for each bite, but keep in mind that lycopene is only one of 12,000 phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables that help lower your risk for heart disease, all other age-related diseases and might even help slow the aging process. So enjoy it all, from chin-dribbling tomatoes to juicy oranges and crunchy apples.

Toasted Tomato and Fresh Basil on Sourdough

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Ingredients:
2 tablespoons fat-free or reduced-fat mayonnaise
4 thick slices sourdough bread, toasted
2 medium vine ripened tomatoes, cored and cut into 4 slices each
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, rinsed, dry, remove stems (1/4 cup per sandwich)
1 teaspoon olive oil mixed with 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
Spread 1 tablespoon mayonnaise on 2 slices toasted bread. Place 4 slices tomatoes on each slice of bread with mayonnaise. Top with 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves. Drizzle with olive oil/balsamic mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Top with remaining slices of toasted bread, cut in half, and serve. |
Makes 2 sandwiches.

Nutritional Analysis per sandwich: 199 Calories; 19 percent fat (4.2 grams); < 1 gram saturated fat; 12 percent protein; 69 percent carbohydrate; 3.7 grams fiber.

Spicy Linguine with Red Clam Sauce
Serve this pasta dish with a crisp salad of assorted greens tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. A loaf of rustic Italian bread  completes the meal.

Ingredients:
Salt
8 ounces linguine
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 (8-ounce) bottle clam juice
1 (28-ounce) can Italian tomatoes, chopped
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 (6.5-ounce) cans chopped clams, undrained
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 pound littleneck clams, cleaned
Parsley and basil leaves

Directions:
Bring salted water to boil and cook linguini according to package directions. (Water should be salty enough to taste like ocean water.) Drain and set aside.
Heat oil in a heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Don't let it brown.
Add tomato paste and sugar, cook for 1 minute. Add clam juice, tomatoes, and red pepper flakes (amount depends on personal taste). Simmer for 20 minutes, or until sauce begins to thicken.
Add chopped clams, parsley, and basil. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile in another pot, steam littleneck clams until shells open, about 3 to 5 minutes.
In a large pasta bowl, pour sauce over freshly cooked linguine. Arrange littleneck clams on top of pasta. Garnish with parsley and basil. Makes 6 servings.

Nutritional Analysis per serving: 345 Calories; 18 percent fat (6.9 grams); < 1 gram saturated fat; 28 percent protein; 54 percent carbohydrate; 4.1 grams fiber.

Green and Red Chunky Salad with Oregano
[Mood Tip: Toss fresh herbs into your salads for zesty flavor without fat or calories. Fresh herbs, such as oregano and parsley are packed with lutein and zeaxanthan, which fight age-related vision loss. Sage contains monoterpenes that might slow the progression of certain cancers. Rosemary contains carnosol that helps prevent oxidation of cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease. The flavones in thyme might help prevent blood clotting.]

This easy vegetable side dish salad is a great accompaniment to sandwiches and packs well in brown-bag lunches. You even can eat it with your fingers!

Ingredients:
1 pound fresh green beans, washed and trimmed
1/3 cup red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves, chopped

Directions:
Steam green beans until tender, but still crisp, approximately 10 minutes.
While beans are steaming, mix ingredients for vinaigrette: onion, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Let sit for 10 minutes to blend flavors.
Put hot green beans in a large bowl and toss with vinaigrette mixture. Add tomatoes and oregano and toss again. Makes 4 servings (approximately 1 generous cup each).

Nutritional Analysis per serving: 79 Calories; 17 percent fat (1.5 gram); 0 gram saturated fat; 15 percent protein; 68 percent carbohydrate; 5.6 grams fiber.

Low-Fat Panna Cotta with Fresh Raspberry Sauce
This delicate, smooth cream is so delicious you won't believe that it's almost fat free (traditional panna cotta is 69 percent fat calories!) and has a third of the calories of the original version. Cool this cream in custard cups or ramekins as described below (this is the best presentation when drizzling sauces over the dessert), or pour liquid mixture into parfait or wine glasses, chill, and serve with chunks of fresh fruit, such as mango, apricots, berries, or kiwi.

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons water
2 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 cup fat-free half & half
4 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons Splenda
1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:
Pour water into a small bowl and sprinkle with gelatin. Stir and let stand for 5 minutes until gelatin softens and forms a stiff gel. Combine half & half, sugar, and Splenda in medium saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until just about to boil. Remove from heat, add gelatin mixture, and stir until gelatin is completely dissolved and mixture is smooth. Set aside and cool, approximately 45 minutes. Stir buttermilk and vanilla into cream mixture. Pour into 6 custard cups or ramekins. Refrigerate for 3 hours or until panna cotta is completely set. Run thin sharp knife around edges and set each ramekin in hot water for 1 minute to loosen gel. Place plate on top of ramekin and invert to allow panna cotta to settle onto plate. Top with fresh fruit or Fresh Raspberry Sauce (see below). Makes 6 servings.

Nutritional Analysis per serving: 90 Calories; 6 percent fat (0.5 gram); 0 gram saturated fat; 21 percent protein; 73 percent carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber.

Fresh Raspberry Sauce
If you can't find fresh raspberries, frozen raspberries or any berry can be used.

Ingredients:
2 cups fresh raspberries
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Directions:
Blend berries in food processor or blender. Pass liquefied berries through a fine sieve, pressing with spatula, to remove all seeds. Whisk sugar and lemon juice into berry liquid. Pour over panna cotta or ice cream, or drizzle over chunks of mango. Also can be stored in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator for up to one week. Makes about 1 cup of sauce.

Nutritional Analysis per 1 ounce serving: 38 Calories; 4 percent fat (< 0.5 grams); 0 gram saturated fat; 3 percent protein; 93 percent carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber.

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