Nutrition Column – the Latest on Lycopene

What do spaghetti sauce, ketchup and watermelon have in common? They are good sources of the antioxidant, lycopene.

Currently under investigation for a variety of health benefits, lycopene may help lower the risk for certain types of cancer, macular degeneration and heart disease. Just what is lycopene and what do we know about it? Here is the latest.

The facts… Lycopene, is a red, fat-soluble pigment found in many fruits and vegetables. A member of the carotenoid family, it is the compound that gives tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon and other fruits their red color. Current research indicates that lycopene possesses antioxidant properties. Antioxidants work to repair and prevent the action of activated oxygen molecules, known as free radicals, which can cause damage to cells in the body. Damage by free radicals may lead to certain cancers, blockage of the arteries, joint deterioration and aging.

Lycopene is considered one of the more potent antioxidants in the carotenoid family. In fact, its antioxidant activity is at least twice as great as beta-carotene, another carotenoid that is believed to provide health benefits. One possible explanation for this observation is that, unlike other carotenoids, lycopene is not converted to vitamin A when ingested, a process shown to weaken the antioxidant properties of carotenoids.

Tomatoes and tomato-based products like tomato sauce, tomato paste and ketchup are our richest sources of lycopene. According to initial studies, cooked or processed tomatoes are a better source of lycopene than raw tomatoes or tomato juice because heating causes a chemical change in lycopene that allows it to be absorbed by the body more easily. Other important dietary sources of lycopene include watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, apricots and papaya.

Recent research… Over the past decade, several studies have been published that suggest diets rich in tomato products may help lower the risk of certain cancers, particularly prostate, lung and stomach cancers. For example, in 1995, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health discovered that men who ate 10 or more servings of tomato products per week were 34 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer. A 2004 study published by the same lead researcher concluded that, among men over age 65 with a family history of prostate cancer, those who had higher blood levels of lycopene had approximately half the risk of getting prostate cancer as did those with lower concentrations.

Another study released by the University of Milan indicated that people who ate a minimum of one tomato-based product each day had a 50 percent lower chance of developing cancers of the digestive tract than those who did not. Other research studies have found links between higher serum concentrations of lycopene and lower risk of breast and bladder cancers.

With regard to other chronic diseases, one study suggested that men with a higher concentration of lycopene in their fat tissue were at lower risk of having a heart attack than were men with a low concentration of lycopene in their fat tissue. Research concerning lycopene’s association with macular degeneration, cholesterol and serum lipid oxidation is still ongoing.

In conclusion… Although this research sounds promising, it is important to point out that it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about lycopene’s potential health benefits. Most of the work reported to date has looked at associations between food consumption patterns and disease risk. Much is left to be learned about the actual role of lycopene and other carotenoids in combating chronic disease. What we do know is that consuming five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily (including red-colored ones) is good for your health.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension