Everyone is likely to have heard of how beneficial tomatoes are for our health. Although the humble tomato contains a variety of vitamins, minerals and polyphenols, the one nutrient that has received a lot of attention is lycopene. In this article, we are going to discover all about lycopene and whether this natural compound deserves the hype it has received over the years.
What Is Lycopene?
Lycopene is the compound within certain food items that give them their bright red color. Like beta-carotene, lutein and astaxanthin lycopene is part of the carotenoid family, all of which provide pigmentation to plants and their fruit.
The Health Benefits
Now that we know what lycopene is, the obvious question is what - if anything - it does to our health. Should be all be consuming more tomatoes as part of our regular diet?
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can be bad for your health when found in excessive amounts. Heart disease, cognitive decline, aging and certain types of cancer are all health issues that are linked to the oxidative damage caused by free radicals. However, these molecules are thought to be harmless when stabilized by certain nutrients.
These ‘stabilizers’ go by the name of antioxidants, which as the name suggests, counteract oxidative stress. So simply put, we should all focus on having an antioxidant-rich diet for the good of our health. Lycopene specifically is famous for being the most powerful antioxidant, as it is known to have the ability to becalm 10 times more oxidative stress than vitamin E. As we will find in the following sections, most of the health benefits of lycopene are due to these powerful antioxidant properties.
It is estimated that around a half of all cancer cases can be attributed to poor diet, so having a good diet is crucial for health and longevity. One of the nutrients that have received interest in the study of cancer is of course lycopene.
Various large-scale scientific studies have shown that those who consume a lycopene-rich diet have lower instances of prostate cancer. In a similar vein, this type of diet has been shown to reduce symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate.
Although the aforementioned benefits are exclusive to men, there is also research showing protection against breast, lung, stomach and colon cancer. Lycopene’s powerful antioxidant properties are likely to be reason for this protection, as oxidative damage can cause abnormal cell growth and function - the start of cancer development.
There is however some doubt as to whether it is the lycopene or other ingredients in tomatoes that are the reason for the anti-cancer benefits. Notably, research has shown low rates of cancer in those who have a high lycopene intake from foods other than tomatoes, suggesting that it is in fact the lycopene to thank for this benefit.
Although there has been a decrease in the prevalence of heart disease, it is still the leading cause of death worldwide. One of the biggest killers is atherosclerosis; the deposit of plaque in the arteries that can cause heart attacks and strokes. This narrowing of arteries can be caused by oxidized cholesterol which sticks to the vessel linings. Science has shown that lycopene has the ability to protect cholesterol from oxidation, therefore keeping the blood vessels flexible and clear of plaque.
On another positive note, lycopene intake has been known to increase HDL ‘good’ cholesterol which is a negative risk factor for heart disease. Therefore it should come as no surprise that those who have a regular intake of lycopene have a lower rate of heart disease.
Just like the other members of the carotenoid family, lycopene is an important nutrient for good vision. Macular degeneration – damage to the most sensitive part of the retina - is known to be the leading cause of blindness with advancing age. This is caused by a long list of chemical reactions that unfortunately cause eye health to deteriorate. Lycopene has been shown to have the ability to slow, or totally stop this process, helping to protect one of the body’s most cherished senses.
Other Interesting Benefits
Most of the research and media attention has rightly focused on lycopene’s impressive benefits in terms of preventing certain cancers and heart disease. However this natural compound has been shown to benefit health in other ways. Research has been published showing that lycopene has the ability to decrease sunburn when taken daily for 10 weeks before sunlight exposure.
Another lesser-known benefit of lycopene is the effect it can have on the bones. The skeleton is a living organ that is constantly being remodeled. As we become older however, losing bone mass is common which can lead to osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures. To go with the range of other benefits, lycopene has been shown to have a protective effect on the bones, keeping them strong and functional.
How Much Lycopene Do We Need?
As lycopene is not an essential nutrient by definition, there is not an agreed amount that should be consumed every day. However, this doesn’t mean it is not massively important for our health. From the research, it appears that 20-30mg per day is a good range to aim for to experience the benefits.
Good Sources of Lycopene
Now we have outlined the benefits of lycopene and how much is needed to experience these, it is time to look at lycopene-rich sources. Although the tomato is revered for its lycopene content, it is not actually the best source. Guavas and watermelon are the two foods that gram for gram contain more lycopene than tomatoes. Rosehip, papaya, grapefruit and red bell peppers are also good sources, with small amounts found in red cabbage, and mangos.
Achieving the lycopene level that has been shown to be beneficial to health is certainly possible through the diet, with experts recommending a dosage that would be found in approximately 2 medium tomatoes.
That being said, more and more people are utilizing the convenience of supplements to ensure a regular intake of health-boosting lycopene. Rosehip is a popular supplement mainly because of its benefits to joint health, however as alluded to earlier, it is also a great source of lycopene which is concentrated into tablet form.
Nutritionists would tell you that raw fruit and vegetables are ideal because they retain all of their goodness when compared to food subject to the cooking process. Interestingly however, the lycopene and total antioxidant content actually increases from cooking tomatoes.
Lycopene as a molecule is known to be fat-soluble meaning that it requires fat to be absorbed by the body. So, the best way to support your health would be to drizzle some olive oil onto some grilled tomatoes, or if taking a supplement containing lycopene, to take it alongside a meal which contains some fat.
Thankfully, the scientific evidence has shown that lycopene deserves the hype and actually has numerous lesser known benefits aside from its well-publicized anti-cancer and cardio protective properties. As lycopene has been shown to decrease the risk of these two, which happen to be the two biggest causes of mortality worldwide, we should all be focusing on including more of this special nutrient into our diet.