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Can You Eat Tomato Leaves? The Answer Will Surprise You

Can you eat tomato leaves? The answer will surprise you

Maybe it was my Asian upbringing that taught me never to waste food, as my family used and ate every part of the vegetable, fish, chicken, pig, or cow that we brought home.

Or maybe it’s my ever-growing curiosity when it comes to food from the land… but when I walk around the garden, looking at all my thriving plants, I always think, Can I eat that?

Tomato leaf with "potato leaf" shape

And by “that,” I mean the unconventional parts of the plant that you typically don’t think to eat. This was how I came to love artichoke stems, leek greens, and cucumber leaves, parts that are normally discarded or composted, but are in fact quite tasty.

Worth a read: 11 Vegetables You Grow That You Didn’t Know You Could Eat

So one day, when I was walking by my tomato plants, I started wondering whether the leaves were edible or not.

With vines that sometimes grow to 10 feet long, it seemed like such a waste that the leaves weren’t used when the amount of fruit seemed so small in proportion.

It got me thinking… Why don’t we eat tomato leaves?

Close-up of tomato leaves with serrated edges

Popular culture has taught us that tomato leaves are part of the “deadly nightshade” family and thus, they must be poisonous. But I bet that more than a few people, if asked, would have no idea what that even means. It’s just what’s known. No questions asked—but we need to ask.

What is a nightshade, why are the leaves poisonous but not the fruit, and why don’t we see bunches of leaves in the supermarket if they aren’t poisonous?

Let’s take a look at all the myths surrounding the Solanaceae family and explore the science that says otherwise.

Tomato leaves

Myth #1: Nightshades are highly poisonous.

When referring to the Solanaceae family of plants, many people call it by its more common moniker, the nightshade family.

Within this family are the vegetables we know and love, like tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, eggplants, and sweet and hot peppers.

But also within this family are the nightshades famously known to be toxic to humans, like hemlock, oleander, foxglove, and larkspur, along with the “deadly nightshade,” also known as belladonna (Atropa belladonna).

Despite its nickname, belladonna, an herbaceous perennial, has historical use in herbal medicine as a pain reliever and muscle relaxer, and even as a beauty aid.

In fact, the name “bella donna” means beautiful lady in Italian. It comes from the outdated practice of women putting drops of belladonna berry juice in their eyes to dilate their pupils. The look was considered attractive in the day!

But rest assured that though tomatoes are distantly related to belladonna, they do not contain the chemical compounds that make belladonna (especially its berries) so poisonous.

The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) does have an interesting history however, as its scientific name, lycopersicum, is Latin for “wolf peach” and derives from German folklore.

When the tomato was brought to Europe in the 16th century, people believed it to be poisonous like other members of the Solanaceae family, including belladonna, henbane, and mandrake.

Legend had it that witches used these hallucinogenic plants in potions to conjure werewolves. Since the tomato plant’s fruit looked so similar to that of belladonna, it was dubbed the wolf peach.

You see, tomatoes of yore looked nothing like the plump, juicy, fashionable tomatoes we know and love. Before modern cultivation, tomatoes grew wild in the Andes and they were tiny—the size of a blueberry. Their shape and color were often mistaken for belladonna berries.

Wild tomatoes on a vine
Wild tomatoes on a vine. Image: Aris Gionis.

These days, we know that while tomatoes belong to the (very large and diverse) nightshade family, they definitely aren’t of the deadly nightshade variety.

This ambivalence was later reflected in the tomato’s other accepted scientific name, Lycopersicon esculentum (translated to “edible wolf peach”).

As you can see, the bad rap bestowed on tomatoes is simply an old wives’ tale, left over from a less-informed era.

Edible tomato leaves

Myth #2: Tomato leaves contain toxic compounds called alkaloids.

As mentioned in my previous post on carrot tops, all vegetables contain alkaloids. Alkaloids are part of a plant’s defense mechanisms (existing in all parts of the plant to protect against certain animals, insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria) and we consume them on a daily basis in various amounts.

That locally-grown heirloom bean and kale salad you had for lunch? Alkaloids. Those antioxidant-rich organic green smoothies you make every week? Major alkaloids.

While it’s true that some alkaloids are not good for you (like nicotine and cocaine), others can be good or bad, depending on your view (like theobromine, the stimulant found in chocolate, or caffeine, that Monday-morning life-giver).

Even though alkaloids are present in your everyday veggies, you could never eat enough of them in one sitting for the alkaloids to be harmful.

So what gives with tomatoes?

The major glycoalkaloid in the tomato plant is tomatine. (To put it simply, a glycoalkaloid is an alkaloid bonded with a sugar.)

Tomatine exists in all green parts of the plant, including the stems, leaves, and green tomatoes.

(For the sake of clarity, whenever I mention “green tomatoes” in this post, I’m referring to the immature, unripened green tomatoes—and not the varieties of naturally green tomatoes.)

A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that the highest concentrations of tomatine were found in senescent leaves, followed by the stems, fresh leaves, calyxes, green fruits, and finally, the roots (which had the lowest concentrations).

Sliced green tomatoes on a cutting board

The difference in concentration between the fresh leaves and green fruits is negligible, so one isn’t necessarily “safer” to consume than the other. While tomatoes do show a decline in tomatine content as they mature and ripen, no one has ever thought twice about devouring a heaping of fried green tomatoes or pickled green tomatoes!

Recipe to try: Roasted Green Tomato Salsa Verde

Glycoalkaloids are also poorly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract of mammals, and will pass through quickly to the urine or feces. In people who are sensitive to these compounds, stomach irritation may occur but they would have to ingest an unrealistic amount of green tomatoes or tomato leaves to experience ill effects.

So what’s the deal? Are tomato leaves poisonous or not?

In the book Toxic Plants of North America, the authors wrote that a toxic dose of tomatine for humans would appear to require at least a pound of tomato leaves, and that “the hazard in most situations is low.”

According to this food safety study (which compared the potential toxicity of glycoalkaloids found in tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants), tomatine is a relatively benign glycoalkaloid. It resulted in no significant changes to liver weight or body weight when fed to mice, and is not considered adverse to human health.

Another study has shown tomato leaves and tomato stems to have higher antioxidant activity and polyphenols (plant-based micronutrients that help fight disease and improve overall health) than tomato fruits.

What’s most surprising is the discovery of tomatine as a cancer inhibitor. The glycoalkaloid has been found to effectively kill or suppress the growth of human breast, colon, liver, and stomach cancer cells.

This study suggests that consumers could benefit from eating high-tomatine green tomatoes, and that there may be a “need” to develop high-tomatine red tomatoes as well (for the treatment of cancer and/or the study of tomatine as an anti-carcinogenic and anti-viral agent).

Judging from these studies, and the lack of evidence that tomato leaves are toxic for human consumption, I’ll have to give Myth #2 a miss.

Close-up of tomato leaves and ripe red tomatoes

Myth #3: Dogs have died eating tomato leaves, so they’re definitely poisonous.

Somewhere along the way, you may have heard a story of someone’s dog dying because it ate a bunch of green tomatoes or tomato leaves. But is this cause for concern for you?

Here’s the deal: tomatine can be deadly for a dog if eaten in large quantities.

And the last part of that sentence is key—in large quantities.

Whether or not tomato leaves can kill a dog is very much a dose-dependent issue. As most pet owners know, dogs eat all kinds of crazy things and don’t really know when to stop.

If they have unrestricted access to your garden and haven’t been trained to stay away from plants, it’s very possible they’ll chow down all your tomatoes, leaves and all.

For small dogs, especially, this amount of ingestion can cause diarrhea and vomiting at best, or a hospital visit in the worst-case scenario. This goes for many other plants in your house and garden, not just tomato plants.

(The list of plants that are toxic to dogs is long and surprising: lemongrass, chamomile, tarragon, borage, milkweed, purslane, and various parts of apples, peaches, and grapefruits.)

Does toxicity to a dog equal toxicity to humans? Far from it.

There are other foods we eat freely that are known to be poisonous to dogs, such as chocolate, grapes, raisins, garlic, and onions. But the substances that are harmful to dogs don’t do the same damage to humans.

To date, there’s scant evidence in veterinary literature regarding the toxicity of tomato leaves. One study in Israel examined the possibility of livestock poisoning by feeding tomato vines to cattle for 42 days, but found no ill effects.

Potato-shaped tomato leaves

Myth #4: Organic gardeners make tomato-leaf sprays to kill pests, so that must mean tomato leaves can kill us too.

Tomato-leaf sprays are made by chopping and soaking tomato leaves in water, then using the sprays on various plants to control aphids.

Since tomatine, a glycoalkaloid, has fungicidal properties and is part of the tomato’s natural defenses, it makes sense that the compound could potentially protect against pests when extracted into a solution.

But theoretically, you could make a spray with any green part of the plant, like the stem (which contains even higher amounts of tomatine).

Unless you’re allergic to tomatoes, the tomatine in tomato-leaf sprays won’t harm you—and that’s why it’s used as an organic method of pest control.

Read more: Get Rid of Pests With This 2-Ingredient Homemade Insecticide

Tomato leaves, washed, on a cutting board

Myth #5: Tomato leaves aren’t sold commercially and no one has ever cooked with them, so that’s a sign they’re not meant to be eaten.

True, if you tried to Google recipes for tomato leaves, you aren’t likely to find any. In his book Cooking by Hand, former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli included a recipe for leafy tomato sauce.

In The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook, I have my own version of a spicy minty tomato sauce infused with tomato leaves, as well as tomato leaf pesto that’s delicious on pizza and sandwiches. Aside from those examples, however, not many people have stepped up and ‘fessed up to their culinary use.

But—and a big but—that does not mean they aren’t edible.

Until I started traveling to other countries, exploring their local cuisines, and cooking from my garden, I never knew all the possibilities of the plants I was growing.

(If you live anywhere outside of North America, you’re probably shaking your head at what we throw out!)

How else can you cook with tomato leaves? I’ve found it best used as an infusion so you can really capture the essence of a ripe summer tomato. Try infusing a handful of tomato leaves in olive oil (I love it as a drizzle on a Caprese salad) or infusing the leaves in tomato juice when you make gazpacho.

Another favorite technique is tossing thinly sliced tomato leaves with a bit of fish sauce, and using it as a savory garnish for rice or fish. Gently fried whole leaves of tomato also make a tasty topping for pasta, the way you’d fry sage leaves in browned butter. Dehydrated and crushed tomato leaves can be used as seasoning, perhaps folded into pizza dough or sprinkled over noodles.

The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook: Recipes and Techniques for Whole Plant Cooking

Waste less food. Get more nutrition. All with the same vegetables you already know and love.

The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is your guide to everything edible from all the plants you grow or buy — things you might not have known you could eat.

As for the rest of my garden, an adventurous appetite has led me to discover how delicious broccoli leaves are (you won’t find many recipes for those either), as well as carrot tops, nasturtium pods, radish pods, radish greens, and pea shoots (which are actually an Asian grocery staple).

Learning how to use the entire plant is my favorite “lazy gardening” strategy because it means I can get more food out of my garden with a lot less work.

The fact that tomato leaves aren’t part of the mainstream American diet doesn’t make them toxic by any means. People just don’t know what to do with them… yet. (Hopefully this will change in my generation.)

You know what is toxic though? The amount of food we waste in this country, and how Americans lead the world in food waste.

Young tomato leaves on a garden plant

Conclusion: So, can you eat tomato leaves?

Contrary to popular opinion, yes—tomato leaves are flavorful, fragrant, and 100 percent edible. You can cook the fresh, young leaves like most other sturdy garden greens, such as kale, collards, or cabbage (leafy greens that need a little longer cooking time to become tender).

But personally, I like to use them as an accent, where their strong herbal aroma adds a unique depth of flavor that you can’t get from tomato fruits themselves.

Growing Tomatoes From Start to Finish

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on August 20, 2013.

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

198 Comments

  • Amy
    May 27, 2021 at 3:46 pm

    I’m afraid you are doing people a disservice, here. Whether or not you are “technically” right, which is still in doubt, you are implying there is no harm in tomato leaves. You are also not accounting for differences in varieties. I would expect more pest-resistant varieties to have higher levels of toxicity than other varieties. Let’s not forget there are humans other than giant adults walking around the garden, picking things that look tasty and eating them, namely my 18 month old — who shall not be allowed to eat the leaves of my Lemon Boy.

    Reply
  • LH
    May 22, 2021 at 2:08 pm

    “But also within this family are the nightshades famously known to be toxic to humans, like hemlock, oleander, foxglove, and larkspur”

    Poison Hemlock: Apiaceae (aka Umbelliferae) family
    Oleander: Apocynaceae family
    Foxglove: Plantaginaceae family
    Larkspur: Ranunculaceae
    Tomato, potato, belladonna: Solanaceae (nightshade family)

    I’m afraid that this sloppiness about basic botanical information casts doubt on the whole article

    Reply
  • carolintom
    May 25, 2020 at 1:47 pm

    I’ve been using tomato leaves for decades to treat bee stings (and related swelling from the poison) and fire ant bites. (just squeeze a green leaf between thumb and forefinger and rub the juice on the pain) I never thought to try eating the leaves, but since I eat the leaves from most of the veggies in the garden, I think this article has interested me in giving tomato leaves a try in some dishes.
    Thank you Linda Ly.

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      May 26, 2020 at 6:39 am

      You’re welcome! And that’s very interesting about using the leaf juice to treat swelling. I’ll have to read into that more, I’m intrigued.

      Reply
  • Silicon Nomad
    October 8, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    They work effectively because of how small the contained biochemistry of insects/pests are. For humans, the worst we will experience is some temporary irritation of the cells lining the digestive system. Additionally, dried and crushed tomato leaves have been used as a bittering food agent in cuisines of many cultures for ages!

    Reply
  • lili
    June 8, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    Tomatoes leaves are really toxic, they contain tomatine and solanine, it’s not a myth, it can kill a dog, or even you if you make an infusion. A few leaves won’t kill you, because there’s no enough poison. But the toxicity do exist. If you cook them, it’s probable it reduces the toxicity, but it won’t wipe it out completly, that will be a myth. I prefer to eat the fruit, and let the toxic plants, even with a low toxicity.

    Please, don’t call a myth something that is in biochemistry and medicine books!

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      June 9, 2019 at 10:57 pm

      I won’t repeat what I’ve already written and cited in my post, but lots of compounds in various edible plants are considered “toxic,” including those we don’t think twice about eating every day. (The tomato fruit, by the way, also contains tomatine and solanine, especially the less ripe it is.)

      Reply
      • lili
        July 7, 2019 at 12:28 pm

        No, and no. Ripe tomatoes don’t have solanine. Be scientific please!

        Tomatine in ripe tomatoes (fruit): 0.03-0.08mg/100g

        Tomatine in tomatoes leaves: 14-130mg /100g (fresh)
        Yes: 130 !!!!!

        Do you know what is 130 in comparaison with 0.08??
        It’s a factor 1625 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
        0.08 X 1625 = 130mg !!
        You need to eat 1625 times more fruit than leaves to reach the same amount of toxicity.

        That makes your claim sounds like a joke.

        It’s a nonsense to say that tomato leaves are as toxic as tomatoes! A big nonsense.

        Read that, do you really thing you have the education to contradict people who have degrees in medicine and chemistry, and are specialists, worked all their life in chemistry and physiology? Do you think “botanical online” are just clowns?

        https://www.botanical-online.com/en/food/tomatoes-toxicity#Do_tomatoes_also_contain_solanine_and_tomatine

        Quoting them: “Do tomatoes, when green, also contains these principles. As the mature, they lose them, so that, when ripe, the amount you have is too small to be considered toxic.”

        Is it the case for green tomatoes and leaves do you think? When the amount is X1000?

        Botanical online, and everyone who is a scientist, said that ingesting leaves is highly toxic, and can cause “gastrointestinal, liver, and heart damage”.

        So, your advices, to eat the thing that every doctor and scientist consider as toxic and able to damage the heart and the liver, is really insane.

        Reply
        • Linda from Garden Betty
          August 4, 2019 at 10:56 pm

          All of the facts I provided in this article are linked to credible scientific sources (medical studies or journals). I am not familiar with the site you mentioned, nor do I know where they get their information from as they don’t cite their sources. I’m always happy to do more research on interesting topics like this one where much of the science is still nascent.

          Reply
    • Beverly Murphy
      July 21, 2019 at 11:15 pm

      I’ve been eating tomato leaves for years. I’m a retired biologist. One of the things I’m not sure was in the article is the fact that tomatine bonds to LDL cholesterol, and carries it out unchanged in the feces. I’ve been eating it for that, and for the effect it has on myriad cancer cells, and because they are delicious. I have reviewed the professional literature fairly extensively on this subject. If you know more about this through research, then yes, please share. If you are speaking on the subject without knowledge, you do a disservice.

      Reply
      • lili
        July 29, 2019 at 5:02 pm

        If a person eats tomato leaves for years, and if you are biologist, you know it’s not a criteria to say it’s innocuous. A non-biologist would give this as a proof, not a biologist. Sorry, but I trust biologist working in toxicovigilence and anti-poisons centers and medical literature more than a few persons who used it without noticing nothing wrong. That’s not science. If you published studies on it, of course it would be true gems to read, and if you want to not do a disservice, paste the links. Send your studies to the anti-poison centers if you can prove it’s totally innocuous. We need proof. So, you basically say that medical literature is wrong and that it’s totally safe? If you tell me “I and my friend” did that with nothing wrong, it’s nothing, non scientific and deceptive. If you paste the studies, it’s factual. Only studies can show it’s safe at any level.

        It’s true that studies shows that tomatine has an action on cancerous cells, and LDL. But it doesn’t mean there’s no side effects, and that you will get the right dosis by eating the leaves, and not a deletarious quantity. Sorry, but as long as I don’t see a study that proves that it’s safe to eat any amount of tomato leaves, I’ll continue to say that’s a crime to give such advice. Staying with great majority of the toxicologists advice to not eat, it’s the wise move.

        Reply
        • Linda from Garden Betty
          August 4, 2019 at 10:50 pm

          All of the facts I state in this article are linked to scientific studies or journals. I will say, however, that not every vegetable we can consume (such as broccoli greens or radish greens) has been “proven safe” by science.

          Reply
        • CustomDesigned
          August 8, 2020 at 5:42 pm

          Eating a pound and a half of spinach has enough oxalic acid to kill you too. If that’s how much tomato leaves are required to be toxic, then they are no more toxic than spinach.

          About 200 people per year die from caffeine overdose. A few people die from drinking too much water (kidney failure). Everything you eat or drink has the potential to be toxic when consumed in ridiculous quantities. Even cocaine is not toxic in the natural quantities present in coca leaf. Coca tea is a staple in South America, every bit as healthy as caffeine tea, and you can import “personal quantities” as a tourist. It takes literally *tons* of coca leaves to refine into the highly dangerous and toxic white powder killing so many foolish people in America.

          Reply
      • Linda from Garden Betty
        August 4, 2019 at 11:10 pm

        Very interesting that you’ve been eating tomato leaves for years! How do you normally prepare or cook them?

        Reply
  • c8h10n4o2
    February 10, 2019 at 6:11 pm

    Might be worth mentioning that I have a severe allergy to tomato leaves and vines, but not to tomatoes themselves. I’m also not the only person I know who has an immediate reaction to any contact with them. If you’ve never handled the plants yourself, be cautious.

    Reply
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