Have you planted any Heirloom Tomatoes in your garden this year? A few years ago when I worked for Earthkeeper Farm, I was introduced to their BEAUTY and their FLAVOR! If you have never tried them, you are missing out…
If your experience with tomatoes is limited to the pale, mealy and mostly tasteless varieties found on the shelves of the grocery store, it’s time to experience organic heirloom tomatoes. Also known as heritage tomatoes, these diverse fruits come in a range of colors, sizes, shapes and flavors that make “regular” tomatoes (literally) pale in comparison.
What are Organic Heirloom Tomatoes?
Let’s start with what they are not. Unlike most modern commercially sold varieties, heirloom tomatoes are NOT hybridized in a lab, genetically modified or sterile. Instead, heirloom tomatoes:
- Come from seeds that have been passed down through generations
- Grow from strains that have been grown for at least 50 years
- Are openly, naturally pollinated
- Are stable
- Are able to reproduce themselves
- Have a known history that includes either their region of origin, knowledge of who has grown the tomatoes in the past, or qualities that make them stand out
Most strains come from seeds that accompanied immigrants to North America during the great waves of European immigration during the early decades of the 20th century, though some come from Central or South America. Either way, most seeds have been passed down through families — and between home gardeners — for generations; some date back to 300 years.
Heirloom plants are able to retain their specific characteristics through time as they are self-pollinating; after just a few generations growing in a limited locale, they become genetically similar. Even when tomatoes naturally outcross with other plants, the seeds produce similar plants to the parents, limiting natural hybridization. Heirlooms are the result of early cultivars that grew in the same area for generations and didn’t outcross often.
As a result, the heirloom tomato seeds of today come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors and flavors and are incredibly stable when planted in the home garden. To illustrate the incredible diversity of heirlooms, a few varieties include:
- Brandywine, a large, fluted, pink-red tomato that’s been dated to 1885
- Abraham Lincoln, a mid-sized, red variety that dates to 1920
- Ruby Gold, a sweet-tasting pink, orange and yellow tomato from 1921
- Chocolate Stripes, a large, dark, red-brown tomato with green stripes and a sweet flavor
- Cherokee Lime, a tangy-sweet tomato with a bright green exterior and a rosy interior
- Climbing Triple L, a meaty, large tomato with a mild flavor; plants grow up to 18 feet high
- Northern Lights, a small tomato from Mexico with yellow-orange skin and flesh that’s prized by chefs
- Pusza Kolosz, a huge, 2-pound red-orange tomato from Romania with sweet, almost seedless flesh
The sheer variety of heirloom tomatoes, along with their amazing flavor, makes it easy to understand their growing popularity. But these diverse plants also provide a number of benefits, to human health, to the environment — and to your palette.
Health Benefits of Organic Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes provide a rich source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, especially when compared to commercially grown tomatoes, which are bred for size, color and hardiness, rather than flavor or nutritional content. Studies indicate that these low-calorie fruits deliver phytochemicals that offer cardio- and chemo-protective effects. In addition, choosing organic, non-GMO heirloom tomatoes means that you’re not exposing yourself to harmful pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and other potential toxins.
Vitamins and Minerals
Heirloom tomatoes contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals. A single, medium-sized heirloom provides 40% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, an anti-oxidant that boosts the immune system, aids in adrenal gland function and helps lower stress levels. Heirlooms contain B vitamins, including folate, niacin, riboflavin and thiamine, which are necessary for red blood cell production and help the body convert fuel into energy. Tomatoes also contain vitamin A, an antioxidant, and vitamin K, which helps regulate blood clotting and promote bone density, protecting against osteoporosis.
Heirlooms also contain essential minerals, such as potassium, which helps reduce blood pressure and promotes heart health. One 100-gram heirloom tomato contains about 237 mg of potassium. Other minerals in tomatoes include manganese, calcium and iron.
Whenever your body converts food into fuel, is exposed to UV rays, or comes in contact with pollutants in the environment, it produces free radicals, or groups of atoms that are missing an electron. Free radicals attempt to “steal” an electron from healthy cells, causing cell damage and exacerbating the effects of aging. Antioxidants reduce this damage by neutralizing free radicals; heirloom tomatoes contain potent antioxidants such as vitamin A, vitamin C and lycopene.
Lycopene is a type of pigment known as a cartenoid; this potent pigment gives red, orange and yellow heirlooms their brilliant color. Studies indicate that lycopene’s antioxidant effects provides protection against a number of cancers, including stomach, skin, prostate, pancreatic, oral cavity, lung, endometrial, colorectal, cervical, breast and bladder cancers. Another cartenoid found in heirlooms, zea-xanthin, has been found to protect against macular diseases and protect against UV rays.
Environmental Benefits of Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirlooms provide a number of environmental benefits, as well. Because there are so many strains — more than 10,000, according to some estimates — these plants promote biodiversity. Heirlooms are open pollinated, or naturally pollinated by bees, birds and butterflies, rather than hybridized in a lab. Commercial hybridization results in sterile plants that require large inputs of water and chemicals to remain healthy. In contrast, heirlooms require watering only about once a week or when dry.
In addition, commercially produced supermarket tomatoes are picked when green, so they stay firm while they’re being trucked across the country — creating CO2 emissions — then gassed with CO2 to make their skins turn red so they look “ripe” on the grocery store shelf.
Flavor Benefits of Heirloom Tomatoes
In contrast, heirlooms are picked at the peak of ripeness in order to highlight their amazing flavor profiles. In fact, these fruits are prized specifically for their range of rich flavors, from sweet to tangy, mild to bold, smoky to salty. No matter which flavor you prefer, you’ll find an heirloom seed that provides it.
Love a sweet flavor? Try Amana Orange, a 2-pound, fluted variety with orange skin. Need a mild taste that’s perfect for salads or slicing? Try Brandywine, a variety from the 1800s. Dreaming of an intense, slightly salty flavor? Then Black Krim, with its purple-brown fruits, may be right for you. Need a sweet, fruity taste to add flair to your salad? Tiny Flamme, with its little orange tomatoes, delivers.
Once you’ve experienced the depth and range of flavors that heirlooms can provide, you’ll find it difficult — if not impossible — to go back to the tasteless alternatives offered at the grocery store.