Dr John Briffa: I say tomato...

When my parents emigrated to England from Malta, they brought a fair slice of their home country's culinary ways with them. Maltese cuisine has a hefty Italian influence, and during my childhood I remember my mother knocking up tomato sauces to accompany spaghetti. Two or three times a week, the family would tuck into this rudimentary dish, topped with pre-grated Parmesan dispensed from a cardboard drum. To this day, I still get a sense of comfort from eating pasta with a red sauce. However, the attraction to this fare is not purely nostalgic: scientists have begun to see tomato sauce as a potential weapon in the fight against major conditions, including heart disease and cancer. The humble tomato may have a lot to be proud about.

Much of the scientific interest in tomatoes has centred on lycopene. This is part of a family of nutrients, the carotenoids, which include the better-known nutrient betacarotene. Like betacarotene, lycopene promotes antioxidant activity in the body. This gives it the potential to combat free radicals, which have been implicated in the processes that underlie chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.

In theory, increasing our intake of lycopene might reduce our risk of falling foul of today's major killers.

Laboratory evidence suggests that lycopene might protect against clogging the body's arteries through its action on cholesterol. While high levels of this waxy blood fat are believed to increase the risk of heart disease, it is not the cholesterol itself that is the problem. Animal studies show that only when cholesterol becomes oxidised (damaged) by free-radical molecules is it likely to bung up the arteries. Lycopene has the ability to protect cholesterol from oxidation. In one study looking at the relationship between diet and heart disease in 10 European countries, a decent lycopene intake seemed to afford protection from heart disease.

Other evidence from around the world points to lycopene having a role in warding off cancers, including those of the stomach, colon, rectum and ovary. One study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that consuming high levels of tomato and tomato-based products was associated with a reduction in risk of prostate cancer of about a third. This study also showed that high tomato consumption appeared to cut the odds of developing more aggressive prostate cancer by a half.

Lycopene is a lipid-soluble nutrient, which means it dissolves more readily in oil than in water.

It appears that it is best absorbed once it has been cooked with oil, such as is the case with tomato-based sauces that hail from the Mediterranean. Which just goes to show, there really is nothing quite like your mum's cooking.

Nutrition news

Asthma is a common chest condition that can affect children and adults alike. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the link between dietary elements known as flavonoids and risk of asthma. Flavonoids comprise a range of substances found in foodstuffs such as tea, wine, vegetables and fruit. High levels of the tongue-twisting flavonoids quercetin (found in apples), and hesperetin and naringenin (found in citrus fruits) were associated with a reduced risk of asthma. High apple and orange consumption was associated with an asthma-risk reduction of 45 and 30 per cent respectively. This suggests that eating plenty of apples and oranges may have some part in the prevention or treatment of asthma.

Dear John

My six-year-old son has been complaining of tenderness all over his scalp and will not have his hair combed. The doctor says he may be suffering from neuralgia, and that this should just go in time. Any advice?
Jennie Marshall, Aberdeen

Neuralgic pain (pain coming from a nerve) in the scalp tends to affect only one side of the head, and can vary in severity from time to time. In my experience, pain that is all over the scalp is often related to vitamin D deficiency. Most of our vitamin D requirements are fulfilled by the effect of sunlight on the skin. But these days children spend less time playing outside, which might put them at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency. The Scottish climate may not be helping, either.

Encourage your son to get plenty of outdoor activity and attempt to get some vitamin D-rich foods inside him, including salmon, herring, eggs and mackerel. It will almost certainly help for your son to take a multivitamin and mineral supplement containing vitamin D. It can be toxic if taken in excess, so I recommend your son does not take more than 200 IU of vitamin D per day in supplement form.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.