A stroll through Whole Foods is all it takes to appreciate that this is the height of tomato season: the first thing you see upon walking through the doors is a wide, colorful array of beautiful heirloom tomatoes. If you aren’t lucky enough to grow them at home, they are there for the taking, beckoning you with their multi-colored hues.

Heirloom tomatoes are the epitome of the wild fruit that nourished our ancestors. They have been spared the genetic cultivating that gives other tomatoes their uniform shape and color: they are the plant world’s equivalent of the uncaged lion running free across the savannah. This makes them especially attractive for an end of summer Paleo-style meal.

Compared to ordinary, genetically-engineered tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes may have a sweeter taste and may have more of the vitamin A that makes tomatoes so healthy. In fact, all tomatoes, but especially the heirloom tomatoes, are a rich source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant from the carotenoid class similar to Vitamin A.

Lycopene is important because it has been shown to have a protective effect against heart disease and prostate cancer, and may even have a role in preventing dementia. Lycopene supplementation in the diet can reduce LDL cholesterol and reduce lipid peroxidation, resulting in a reduced risk of heart disease. Tomatoes are probably a significant contributor to the lower risk of heart disease in Mediterranean cultures.

Studies have also shown that there is an inverse association between tomato intake and prostate cancer, making this particularly relevant for men over 50. An analysis of studies on tomato intake demonstrated a 20% reduction in risk of prostate cancer, with one study demonstrating a 40% reduction in risk. Lycopene has also been associated with a lower risk of breast, colon, and lung cancers as well.

Increasing your intake of tomatoes is an important part of the Mediterranean diet and clearly important for decreasing your risk of heart disease and cancer. Lycopene is found in most red fruits and vegetables, including papaya, grapefruit, and watermelon in addition to tomatoes. However, over 70% of the lycopene we ingest generally comes from tomatoes and tomato products. This may be because lycopene is actually more readily available from processed compared to raw tomatoes.

Crushing and cooking the tomato releases the lycopene so that it can be better absorbed. Tomato paste, tomato sauce, and even ketchup are all sources of lycopene. Lycopene is also better absorbed when it is paired with fat, so cooking with olive oil actually enhances its effectiveness.

The protective effects of lycopene can be achieved by having two or more servings of tomato sauce or its equivalent per week.

Here’s one of my favorite recipes for turning heirloom tomatoes into an incredible summer dish. Charring the tomatoes releases some of the lycopene, while the crab garnish evokes fond memories of summer days on the Jersey Shore. Enjoy while you can!

Cold Grilled Heirloom Tomatoes Soup

  • 2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
  • 1 small sweet onion or red onion, sliced thickly
  • Zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 ounces lump crab meat

Preheat grill to high heat. Halve the heirloom tomatoes and arrange on hot grill. Turn until lightly charred on all sides. Grill onion slices until also charred lightly. Remove to cool and transfer to a bowl. Add juice, zest, and olive oil. Puree with immersion blender. Chill and serve garnished with lump crab.