It's ironic that even though the Aztecs probably used them as one of their staple crops, it may have been Spanish conquistadors who introduced tomatillos (which translates to "little tomatoes" in Spanish) to the New World, after first carrying them back to Spain.
Sometimes called husk cherries or tomato verde, tomatillos are a small, green Mexican fruit with a Japanese lantern-type shell surrounding it. While they're from the tomato family, and in fact do resemble small, green tomatoes inside the papery covering, tomatillos appear more like cape gooseberries. When removing the covering, don't be surprised when the fruit seems a little sticky – this can be easily washed off. The fruit contains a pectin-like substance that thickens as it cools.
Tomatillos have a faintly tart, lemon-like essence, which is tastier when picked green than if the fruit is allowed to darken to yellow, red, or even purple. They're about the size of a large walnut or a small lemon.
Blended with garlic, onions, and herbs like cumin and cilantro, tomatillos lend themselves well to lively Mexican recipes such as enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. They're also excellent in soups, sandwiches, and salads. Salsa verde is a favorite using tomatillos as the main ingredient, but they also can be a great base for any type of salsa.
Health Benefits of Tomatillos
Containing all the right ingredients for optimal nutrition, tomatillos are a very good source of dietary fiber, niacin, potassium, and manganese. They contain 20 percent of the daily recommended value in vitamin C, 13 percent of the vitamin K, and a healthy amount of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper. Compared with tomatoes, tomatillos provide a few more calories, fat, and protein per ounce, but the extra fiber, minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins make up for it.
A medium tomatillo may only contain 11 calories, but with it comes 91 milligrams of potassium. B-carotenes zeaxanthin and lutein impart extraordinarily potent antioxidant properties that work with vitamin A to protect vision and help prevent macular degeneration. Vitamin A also helps maintain healthy mucus membranes and skin, and the flavonoids do their part in inhibiting lung and mouth cancers.
A recently-discovered set of naturally occurring phytochemical compounds called withanolides, such as Ixocarpalactone-A, is one of the compounds in tomatillo found to be not only antibacterial, but also a natural cancer fighter. Traditional healers in India have been known to prescribe foods containing these compounds as a tonic for arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions, even if they didn't know why it worked.
Modern science is looking more closely than ever at the tomatillo because of its proven ability to fight inflammation and prevent the formation of blood vessels and tumors that promote cancer growth.
The wild tomatillo (Physalis longifolia) has recently been found to be another cancer preventative. The discovery began when three members of a Kansas University team traveled to South America on a "bioprospecting" excursion and found a native plant with anti-cancer potential.
But when funds and distance prevented a return trip and further research on that plant, the research turned to Native American plants and revealed something better – the wild tomatillo. This amazing little fruit contains compounds with promise far beyond any expectations in the fight against cancer. Withanolides content was found to be effective against melanomas, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, cancer of the esophagus and pancreas, and even some brain tumors and leukemias.
However, consume tomatillos in moderation because they contain fructose, which may be harmful to your health in excessive amounts.
Tomatillo Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), raw
|Calories from Fat
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie
Studies on Tomatillos
Researchers at the University of Kansas discovered 14 compounds in the wild tomatillo showing significant anti-cancer properties in preclinical testing. Known as withanolides, these compounds are already showing promise in combating a number of different cancers and tumors – without any noticeable side effects or toxicity.1
Researchers reported data revealing that withanolides in tomatillos show potent ability to discourage cancer growth and neutralize colon cancer cells. The evidence presented suggests for the first time that tomatillos may have chemopreventive or therapeutic value in the management of colon cancer.2
Tomatillos Healthy Recipes:
Quinoa, Corn, and Tomatillo Salad
|2 cups cooked quinoa
||2 ears of corn, cut from cobs
||3 medium tomatillos, finely diced
||1 large scallion, chopped fine
|2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
||1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
||2 tsp. lime juice
||Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Place the quinoa, corn, tomatillos, scallion and cilantro in a large bowl and mix well. Add olive oil and lime juice and mix gently. Season to taste and serve either room temperature or chilled.
This recipe makes four servings.
Tomatillos Fun Facts
Tomatillos can easily be grown in containers, inside or out. In the absence of sun, a grow light is the ticket. You need an extra large pot or wooden box with drain holes at the bottom, and in this case, bigger is better. Don't forget to use good potting soil, and a few inches of gravel between the dirt and the holes helps retain the right moisture level. Plant your seeds and water them regularly but lightly, keeping the soil damp but not wet. (Over-watering is one of the most common mistakes.)
Tomatillos can grow four to five feet high, so make sure there's room in your pot for stakes. Pick the tomatillos when the husk is stretched over the fruit – firm but not hard.
With a combination of vitamins and minerals that include fiber, potassium, vitamins A, C, and K, niacin, manganese, the B-carotenes zeaxanthin and lutein, plus iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper, the tomatillo definitely has its share of nutrients. But hands down, the most important compound in this small, Mexican fruit is a relatively new discovery called withanolides.
First, three researchers from the University of Kansas discovered 14 new compounds in the wild tomatillo showing significant anti-cancer properties. Subsequent studies have found it to be one of a handful of compounds more powerful against cancer than chemotherapy. But tomatillos are still the same little paper-covered fruit of the vine, so to speak, that makes such addictive salsa verde and other Mexican-influenced recipes.
This is more proof that, more than any other factor, natural foods with all their naturally healthy properties are the key to life.