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It’s long been known that fruits and vegetables are good for your health. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults ideally consume two cups of fruit and three cups of veggies per day. But pinpointing precisely why these foods are healthy is no easy task, says Jessica Cooperstone, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University. 

“There’s actually very little conclusive data that tells us that any one particular fruit or vegetable or any one particular component of that food is causally related to a decrease in chronic disease risk,” Cooperstone says. “We try our best to design studies that help us get at what specific foods might be doing and how specific components of foods might be acting, but interrogating this is challenging.”

Cooperstone has long embraced that challenge, centering much of her work on the health benefits of tomatoes. With dual appointments in the departments of Horticulture and Crop Science and Food Science and Technology, she’s lead research on everything from the cancer-fighting effects of lycopene, the pigment that gives tomatoes their red color, to the beneficial impact of tomato consumption on the gut microbiome. 

Currently, she’s harnessing her expertise in plant breeding and genetics to make the tomato—the second most consumed vegetable in the U.S. diet—even better. Below, Cooperstone explains that work, and more.

Describe your most recent research on tomatoes and their potential health benefits.

We have been interested in a class of compounds called steroidal alkaloids, which are present in tomatoes. These compounds look a lot like cholesterol, structurally, but they contain a nitrogen atom. There’s some compelling data in the literature that shows that when steroidal alkaloids are administered [to animals], the result is either a decreased cholesterol level in the blood or an increase in the level of cholesterol that is excreted. Clearly, these cholesterol-like compounds are doing something, and we’re seeking to understand them further.

How have you gone about investigating this in your lab? 

First, I’ll give you some background. There are tomatoes you can find in the wild that are naturally quite high in steroidal alkaloids. The challenge is that these tomatoes also have lots of negative attributes. They’re different from the tomatoes you buy from your grocery store. So, we can’t just feed people or animals wild tomatoes high in steroidal alkaloids and compare them to what we can buy in the store. To overcome this, we use conventional breeding techniques to move the trait for high steroidal alkaloids into a commercial tomato—essentially, we’ve created a new tomato that is the same as a regular tomato except that it has high levels of steroidal alkaloids. This gives us some capacity to interrogate effects. We’re now feeding these tomatoes to mice, alongside the commercial control group, and monitoring cholesterol levels in both. If we see an effect, we can be sure it is the effect of the steroidal alkaloids. We’ve found this to be a powerful approach to try to get at the causality of specific food components in a situation where causality is hard to trace. 

How does working across two departments advance this work? 

I’m a card-carrying food scientist and have been working in food science and nutrition my whole career, but being able to work with plants and investigate how we can make our plants better is powerful. I’ve been collaborating with my colleague David Francis, a plant geneticist who breeds processing-type tomatoes—those intended to go inside of a can or be processed in some way. Processed tomatoes account for about 75 percent of the tomatoes Americans eat, so if we eventually do a human study with the tomatoes we’ve created and find positive results, this could potentially lead to our crafting a really beneficial commercial product. 

What's the role of processing in optimizing tomatoes’ flavor and healthfulness? 

I think year-round, the best tomatoes are the ones in a can because canned tomatoes, or any kind of processed tomato products, are thoughtfully picked exactly at optimum ripeness, and that makes the biggest difference in terms of how those products taste. Canned tomatoes are always going to taste good, and they’re always going to be available and affordable. From a healthfulness perspective, we know, for example, that lycopene, the red pigment and antioxidant in tomatoes, is better absorbed from processed tomatoes as compared to fresh ones.

Tomatoes are one of the most popular crops for the home gardener. Is there a particular variety you’d recommend people grow at home? 

I like this question because while I grow tomatoes at Ohio State for my research, I also grow them at home for fun. I would say any tomato you grow at home is going to be great. When you pick a tomato and it’s ripe, they’re all good. I don’t think we have any data that says one type of tomato is better than another or that heirloom or organic is necessarily preferable. My guidance would be: grow something you enjoy with the space that you have—and make sure you eat it. It’s important to remember that only about 10 percent of American adults eat enough fruits and vegetables. 

Attend IFT FIRST: Annual Event and Expo next month to hear more from Jessica Cooperstone live and in person. She will be a featured speaker on the panel How Can We Harness the Heterogeneity in Dietary Responses to Guide Product Development for Personalized Nutrition on Tuesday, July 16, at 3:15 p.m. CT. The panel explores how vastly different human responses to dietary interventions presents both a puzzle and an opportunity for researchers. 

Are you coming to IFT FIRST? Members save big on registration. Reserve your spot today!  

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