What's in a Tomato?

Student's research addresses nutritional questions
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In the United States, food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from the farm before it reaches our dinner plates. Local farmers and environmental advocates would like to shorten that distance. Among their possible marketing approaches is nutritional value. Are locally grown tomatoes, for instance, healthier for you than commercially grown and shipped tomatoes?

During her senior year, chemistry major Kasmira Adkins '08 teamed up with the Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture non-profit organization to find out. She extracted samples from tomatoes grown locally and tomatoes grown in Florida, California and Canada, then used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and high performance liquid chromatography equipment in Appalachian State University's chemistry labs to analyze their concentrations of flavonoids, which are known for their high anti-oxidant properties.

Her study provided unexpected results. "I found that you can't just compare local and shipped tomatoes. A more accurate comparison would be the different types of tomato and which type of flavonoid you are looking for," said Adkins, who majored in biology with a chemistry minor.

Specifically, Adkins found the Yellow Brandywine variety of tomato had more of a flavonoid called quercetin, known for promoting heart and respiratory health, while the Red Brandywine variety had more kaempferol, known for its cancer-fighting properties. High levels of both flavonoids were found in a variety known as Cherokee Purple.

In May, Adkins will share her information with BRWIA along with an action plan for how the local agency can apply her data.

Adkins, who is from Richlands, N.C., plans to graduate in May and pursue a career in medicine. She conducted her research as a senior thesis requirement for Appalachian's Heltzer Honors Program. Her work was funded in part by one of Appalachian's Prestigious Scholars grants, a competitive award for undergraduates with a minimum GPA of 3.75. In addition, Adkins participated in Appalachian's Public Service Research Program, which links undergraduate students with a community agency to address a real social problem.

"It's all been very interesting," Adkins said of the opportunity to use her organic chemistry lab skills for practical research. "I'm glad my thesis is research I can do for a community agency instead of just for my own benefit."

Adkins also gained experience presenting her research in a professional setting. She was among a select group of students participating in the National Conference on Undergraduate Researchheld in Salisbury, Md., in April. She also presented her work at Appalachian's 11th Annual Celebration of Student Research and Creative Endeavors.