Why Tomatoes Were Thought to Be Poisonous
An ugly misunderstanding
The wide assortment of fruits and vegetables that we have today was not available to most of the world in antiquity. Many reasons, such as globalization and scientific advancements, have allowed multiple societies to grow different fruits and vegetables.
Every time a new fruit was introduced to a different society, many odd things could happen. In some instances, people would perceive it in high regard and almost attribute mythical status to these fruits. In other cases, myths surrounding the notoriety of that particular fruit would emerge.
Looking back, it is not hard to imagine why people would think in such a manner. To have a proper understanding, we should look at where the tomato came from.
Scientific data shows that the tomato's domestication process started about 80,000 years ago and ended about 7,000 years ago. Two regions within Latin America have the possible ancestors; it is either Ecuador and Peru or Mexico.
For this reason, the Aztec people had already been cooking the plant in their meals long before everyone else. The English word tomato even originates from the Aztec word of the fruit tomatl. It was a common part of these people’s diet, as the fruit had already been in the region for well over millennia.
The first encounter Europeans had with this fruit was in the 16th century. Journeys into the New World opened the door for cultural transfer. One of the vital components of such transfers is food. There is speculation that it could have been the conquistadors who brought it back to Europe. Some evidence suggests that two Jesuit priests brought the tomato to Italy from Mexico.
Acceptance and opposition
The arrival of this mysterious fruit was received with mixed reactions. Some readily accepted it, while others feared the fruit entirely.
In the southern part of Europe, it was readily accepted, but there was a lot of opposition to it on the northern side. One of the reasons that the people of northern Europe were quick to object to it was because it looked like a local poisonous fruit known as the wolf peach.
Tomatoes were also relegated to society's lower reaches as rich nobles chose not to eat them after a few attempts. In the 1500s, rich people ate from utensils made from lead. Tomatoes are acidic, and thus the reaction between the utensil’s surface would produce lead compounds that leached off the plate and were ingested.
The result of constantly consuming lead compounds is lead poisoning. This problem hit rich circles, and thus the tomato became an omen and an ornamental plant grown in small gardens. Poor people who ate from wooden plates did not get affected by this problem at all. It was a welcome addition to their diets.
The tomato became widely accepted because of two particular events. The pizza was invented in the 1800s, and the tomato was a key ingredient in it. As pizza got accepted by many, so did the tomato as part of many other delicacies.
Another situation that made the tomato widely accepted was the mass immigration to America. Italians who emigrated to America brought it, and incorporated it into their diet. It thus became a staple in American households.
The misunderstanding came about as a development that was synonymous with the use of wrong materials.
British Tomato Growers Association. “History.” Welcome to the British Tomato Growers Association, www.britishtomatoes.co.uk/tomato-facts/history/.
National Science Foundation. “Research News | NSF.” NSF — National Science Foundation, www.nsf.gov/discoveries/.