Tomato Leaves: Edible After All These Years?

By Jean Nick

Everyone "knows" tomato leaves are poisonous, right? Well, it turns out everyone is wrong. An article in the NYT this week recommends using them to bring out the flavor of tomato sauce. Having been a card-carrying member of the "everyone" group I had to look into the subject further and turned up an article, also in the NYT, from 2009 by food writer Harold McGee on the very subject. While tomato plants are certainly members of the nightshade family, which contains a number of highly poisonous members, and tomato leaves and stems still appear on many official list of poisonous plants, there is actually very little evidence to support the assertion. McGee tracked down a researcher who has studied tomato and potato alkaloids for decades who explained that while tomato plants do contain an alkaloid it is not solanine (the one that makes green potato skins and potato leaves dangerous), as is sometimes listed, but rather tomatine. Tomatine is present in green tomatoes, which some people partake generously of, and lab tests with animals show that not only does tomatine appear to be harmless it may actually lower LDL cholesterol and fight cancer. While it may be possible to overdo it one recent toxicology reference suggests you would have to consume a pound of tomato leaves to get a toxic dose. A few leaves simmered in a pot of tomato sauce for 10 minutes is said to give the sauce a fresh, just-picked zing. Young shoots and tender leaves can be used for cooked greens and pesto. McGee found the dried leaves tasted much like tea. So, it turns out that not only are "love apples" not the poisonous menace Europeans first feared them to be, the much-maligned greens aren't poisonous either. I'll have to give them a try.

New York Times (26 July 2011). New York Times (28 July 2009).
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