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Tomatoes: turns out they're healthy

Back in 1995, a group of Harvard researchers reached an important conclusion: Tomatoes are good for you.

It took 47,000 people nine years to be able to confidently tell us what our parents have known for eons. But those clever scientists were able to back up that maternal intuition with solid data and even fine-tuned the concept a tad.

For instance, they say that beyond being good for all of us, tomatoes are especially good for men, and in fact, those men who eat at least 10 servings a week of tomato-based foods are up to 45 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer.

Thankfully, it doesn't mean a nonstop diet of plain ol' tomatoes. Indeed, the tomato-based foods given the thumbs-up range from fresh to canned tomatoes, as well as a plethora of tomato-laden spin-offs, including spaghetti sauce and pizza; any offerings in which you can honestly say tomatoes are a key player.

The researchers explained that tomatoes are rich in an antioxidant called lycopene. And although lycopene can be found in other foods - strawberries, for example - tomatoes and tomato products accounted for almost 90 percent of the lycopene in diets of men who participated in the study.

Such information gives credence to an ongoing theme. When it comes to protecting ourselves from disease, there is no single magic bullet. A varied diet is the name of the game.

Which is exactly what nutrition experts stress. Men needn't go crazy consuming tomato products. That would preclude a diet rich in all fruits and vegetables, and that would be a mistake. Nobody knows what the active compound may be in any given food that might ultimately be responsible for reducing rick of other diseases.

But with the scores and scores of canned tomato products on the supermarket shelves these days, it's certainly easy to ensure that we all are getting a healthy dose of lycopene this winter. For starters, you've got your basic whole tomatoes, stewed tomatoes and diced tomatoes. Then you've got an entire international theme to consider, from stewed tomatoes with Italian seasonings to stewed tomatoes with Mexican seasonings, to diced Roma tomatoes in tomato puree.

Perhaps you're even lucky enough to have access to the tongue-searing brand of canned tomato products under the label titled RO-TEL. If you're partial to Southwest or Mexican cuisine, then these chili-laced tomatoes are definitely great to have around since they can be whipped into sauce status with very little effort.

In any case, when attempting to determine an adequate number of servings, the general rule of thumb is 1/2 cup of a tomato product is what you're after. The recipes that follow are an example of just how easy and delicious a diet rich in tomatoes can be - even in January.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer. E-mail her at janrd@proaxis.com

RECIPE:

Tomato Cumin Sauce

1/2 cup minced yellow onion

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce

1 tablespoon chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

Salt, to taste

White pepper, to taste

Sugar, to taste

1/4 cup sour cream (optional)

In a saucepan, over medium heat, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until the onions are softened and transparent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce, chili powder and cumin and simmer gently, covered, for about 15 minutes, to allow the flavors to develop and merge. Adjust the seasonings, adding salt, white pepper and sugar, to taste. For a creamier sauce, stir in the sour cream and gently reheat to serve.

Serve with grilled scallops or chicken, atop pasta or even on a Southwest-style pizza.

Makes about 3 1/4 cups of sauce, enough for 6 servings.