Origins of the Tomato and the Potato

Today, I have decided to delve into something a bit lighter and sort of a trivia. Based on the title of this article, what were the origins of these two favorite produce items?


Ricardo Mazcal, Herbalist

2/16/20224 min read

The Healing Power of Plants

Ricardo Mazcal Herbalist and Nutritionist

Reprinted from PV Mirror issue Friday, February 11, 2022

Origins of the Tomato and the Potato

The tomato is native to South America and was cultivated from there to North America before the discovery of the continent in 1492, now known as America. The Aztec language was used by traders trading goods from South America to what now is the US. In Mexico, the word "tomatl" simply means "swollen fruit." Like many other words ending in atl, from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, it means water. "Tomato" comes from the word tomal or tomohuac which means fat. So, tomato means "fat water."

Since the Spanish had difficulty pronouncing the termination in many Aztecs words (atl) they called it "tomato." The tomato, along with corn, potatoes, chili and sweet potatoes, were cultivated by the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs. Maize, beans, and squash, whether grown individually or together, have a very long history in the Americas. The process to develop this agricultural knowledge took place over 5,000–6,500 years, and squash was domesticated 8,000–10,000 years ago. While the tomato is considered a vegetable due to its many culinary uses, it is, in fact, a fruit belonging to the potato, pepper and eggplant family. Tomatoes are an excellent fruit for a quick, nutritious and healthy snack, also an ideal ingredient for creative recipes. The tomato, potato, maize, chilies, beans, and squash were introduced to Spain and the rest of Europe at the beginning of the 16th century. The tomato first arrived at the court of Queen Isabela in Madrid, and later were traded in Seville, which was one of the main centers of international trade, predominantly with Italy and France. It was exactly in 1544 that the Italian herbalist (Mattioli) introduced his knowledge to Italy ("Pomodoro"). Tomatoes were even given aphrodisiac properties in France, where it was called "pomme d'amour." The first known published Neapolitan recipe for "Spanish-style tomato sauce" dates back to 1692.

The potato was found and then cultivated between the years 8000 and 5000 BC in a region that would include southern Peru and Bolivia. Since then, it has spread throughout the Americas and was cultivated widely by the Aztecs and Mayan people in Mexico. The Spanish took it to Spain, and now it has become a staple food in the vast majority of countries around the globe. The tomato became, and is, one of the most popular foods or ingredients in the entire world due to its versatility and ease of combining well with cheese, eggs, fish, meat, vegetables and a wide variety of aromatic herbs.

Tomatoes are nutritious and very low in calories. They contain large amounts of vitamin C and folic acid; the most critical food source of a red pigment called lycopene that has antioxidant properties and can be anticancer and beneficial in prostate problems. A high level of lycopene in plasma is associated with a lower rate of some cancers, especially prostate cancer. Blood plasma absorbs lycopene better from products processed at high temperatures than when an equivalent amount of fresh tomatoes is eaten. Similarly, lycopene from heat-processed tomato juice is higher than raw tomato juice. The Aztecs learned from the Toltecs and Olmecs very efficient crops, producing nutritious vegetables, far better than today's farming methods. In a technique known as companion planting: the three sister's agricultural method. The maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus sp.), and squash (Cucurbita pepo) are planted close together. Maize and beans are often planted together in mounds formed by hilling soil around the base of the plants each year. The three crops benefit by being grown together: the cornstalk serves as a trellis for the beans to climb, the beans repair nitrogen in the soil, and their twining vines stabilize the maize in high winds, and the broad leaves of the squash plant shade the ground, keeping the soil moist and helping prevent the establishment of weeds.

I have often wondered what people around the world ate before the Spanish introduced the Aztec crops of tomato, potato, corn and squash to Europe and then to the rest of the world. I smile when the Irish think that the potato is from Ireland or the Italians think the tomato is from Italy! If you have any comments or questions about this column, contact me by email or find me at the Cuale Island Friday Market from 9 am to 1:30 pm, and at Arte Viviente (Living Art), Libertad 303, Centro Vallarta, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 3 to 5 pm. You can get herbal supplements, tinctures, tonics and many natural products such as organic coffees, apple cider vinegar with the Mother, and 38 different spices, including turmeric & Ceylon cinnamon. Superfoods such as Spike Protein Detox Golden Tea. Indulge chocolate with 70% cocoa, Veggie Power and Maz-mix digestive formula.

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The beloved tomato and the potato.  Are you curious to discover some interesting history about each?
The beloved tomato and the potato.  Are you curious to discover some interesting history about each?