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Native to Mexico and Central America, the tomato was originally a small round fruit resembling what is known today as the cherry tomato. Spanish settlers were introduced to the tomato by the Indians who cultivated it. Long considered poisonous, it was used mainly as an ornamental plant until the 18th century. The belief that tomatoes can make people sick is not so far-fetched, considering that the unripe fruits as well as the leaves and stems of this plant contain a toxic alkaloid. Nevertheless, the tomato found its way into Italian cooking by the 16th century; the Italians named it pomodoro, meaning "golden apple." This fruit became popular in the United States in the 19th century. The word "tomato" is derived from tomalt, the name for this fruit in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

A short-lived perennial in tropical regions and an annual in temperate climates, the tomato grows on a bushy, sometimes creeping plant requiring long periods of sunshine and warm temperatures. It is produced mainly in the United States, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, China, Spain, and Italy. There are over 1,000 different varieties of tomatoes, including the cherry tomato and the plum tomato (also known as the Italian tomato); there is also a bioengineered variety that has been genetically altered for longer preservation, while another variety is cultivated in soilless conditions. Tomatoes can be round, globular, or oval. There is even a square variety that was created by American agronomists in 1984 to meet industry requirements for a tomato that is easy to pick and ideal for packing.

The size of the fruit varies according to the species; the small cherry tomato is about 1 inch in diameter. The plum tomato, which resembles a small pear, is 2 to 4 inches long and between 1 and 2 inches in diameter; this variety is less juicy and contains fewer seeds than the others. The common round type is 2 to 5 inches in diameter and varies in weight between 3 ounces and more than 2 pounds. Some varieties stay green even as they ripen, but most tomatoes turn red, pink, orange, or yellow. The flavour of tomatoes depends on a number of factors, including when they were harvested, their degree of acidity, their sugar and water content, as well as the texture of their skin and flesh (which can be relatively starchy). Most tomatoes on the market today are firm and thick-skinned.