Health Jackpot! The refreshing, colorful salad that helps protect your heart and reduce cancer risk
While many diets claim to be healthy, one, in particular, appears to consistently come out on top in population studies. The Mediterranean Diet - rich in plant-based foods, fish, olive oil, and antioxidant spices - is beloved by many nutritionists for its association with lower rates of heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, neurodegenerative conditions, and premature death. If the Mediterranean Diet is the unofficial king of all heart-healthy modes of eating, then the classic Caprese salad - a delectable combination of organic ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella (or vegan, if you like) cheese, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil - is definitely one of its “crowning glories.”
The healthful ingredients in a Caprese salad provide clues as to why the Mediterranean Diet is so effective in supporting health in the first place. Antioxidants? Flavonoids? Polyphenols? Healthy fats? Dietary fiber? Name a beneficial nutrient, and you will see that the Caprese salad offers it up - in spades. So let’s look at some of the health-promoting virtues of this remarkable dish.
Fresh, ripe tomatoes provide lycopene
Tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that imparts a reddish hue to fruits and vegetables. Here’s where the merits of the Caprese salad become clear: research has shown that eating tomatoes along with a healthy oil or fat (such as olive oil) makes it much easier for your body to absorb beneficial lycopene. Numerous studies - including those published in Experimental Biology and Medicine and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute - suggest that people who eat a lot of tomato products have a lower risk of cancers of the lungs, prostate, and stomach.
More recent studies have shown that lycopene offers protection against damaging ultraviolet rays in sunlight - and may help defend against sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancer. Other tomato “perks” include generous amounts of potassium (essential for regulating blood pressure), hefty amounts of immune system-boosting and antioxidant vitamin C, and a substantial amount of dietary fiber. (Scientists have long reported that diets high in fiber-rich fruits and vegetables have been shown to protect against colon cancer.) Even the tomato skins have health benefits - so don’t peel them! The outer layer of a tomato contains naringenin, a flavonoid with strong anti-inflammatory effects.
Probiotic-rich raw cheese supports digestive health and immunity
Mozzarella cheese, usually made from the milk of Italian buffaloes or cows, is acknowledged to be one of the healthiest types of cheese on the planet. For those looking to avoid dairy cheese ... you can easily replace it with a vegan variety of your choice.
An ounce of full-fat mozzarella cheese contains a respectable six grams of protein and provides close to 15 percent of the adult recommended dietary intake for bone-building calcium. But that’s not all.
Mozzarella is also a probiotic food. This means it can improve gut health, promote immunity, and quench inflammation through its content of beneficial bacteria, which include Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus fermentum. So if you eat mozzarella cheese, your community of gut flora just might “thank” you by providing you with better digestion, increased immunity, reduced inflammation, and a brighter outlook.
Of course, in all fairness, you can easily increase your intake of probiotic foods by eating raw sauerkraut, miso soup or fermented non-GMO soy products like tempeh or natto.
Antibacterial fresh basil delivers antioxidant “punch”
While basil tastes similar to oregano, the flavor is sweeter and mellower, with less “bite.” The real magic happens when the fresh leaves of this common kitchen herb are combined with ripe garden tomatoes, resulting in a “flavor marriage” that is nothing short of heavenly.
Botanically known as Ocimum basilicum, basil has a long history of both culinary and medicinal use. It is advised in the Ayurvedic healing system to treat a range of conditions, including skin rashes, coughs, and sore throats. Basil contains the antioxidant vitamins A and C, along with calcium and magnesium. And a two-tablespoon serving provides close to a third of the adult daily recommended intake for vitamin K1, which supports bone health and helps to keep arteries healthy and clear.
Basil’s “secret weapon” could be its content of an essential oil known as eugenol, which inhibits the release of a pro-inflammatory molecule known as COX-2. Another essential oil in basil, linalool, is believed to have mild soothing and sedative effects. Finally, this versatile herb has natural antibacterial qualities that can fight S. aureus and E. coli, two of the common “nasties” behind food-borne illnesses. Natural health experts report that adding basil to veggies or greens helps to decrease the number of pathogenic bacteria just waiting to cause trouble.
Last but not least: Recent research supports benefits of extra virgin olive oil for the heart
Loaded with anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats, olive oil is one of the key ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet and is responsible for many of the health effects. Multiple studies have suggested that extra virgin olive oil improves heart health by preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, improving blood vessel linings, and helping to prevent excessive blood clotting. In a 2017 review published in Oncotarget, the authors credited oleuropein, an olive oil constituent, with powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and health-promoting effects - from lowering blood pressure to protecting against neurodegenerative conditions. (Pro tip: Beware of cheap “blended” olive oils. Read labels thoroughly and check for certification to ensure that you are getting real extra virgin olive oil).
While traditional Caprese salad recipes used only tomatoes, cheese, basil, and olive oil, many cooks now add a dash of balsamic vinegar to finish things off. Since balsamic vinegar is also rich in antioxidants (and adds appealing tanginess), this embellishment is a win/win.
Fun fact: Caprese salad was created in Capri after World War I by a patriotic Italian cook who wanted to invent a dish modeled after the red, green and white colors of the Italian flag. With its palate of brilliant red tomatoes, pure white cheese, bright green basil (and the shimmering green-gold of olive oil), a well-made Caprese salad is a small masterpiece: lovely to look at and to eat.
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