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Tomatoes, Lycopene, And Your Health

Out of curiosity, when you hear the word “lycopene”, what image comes to mind? If you’re like me, you see a bottle of ketchup. That’s thanks to a huge ad campaign that Heinz started almost two decades ago. The campaign positioned ketchup as offering health benefits due to its lycopene content.

Lycopene is a phytochemical, a chemical that naturally occurs in plants. It joins the familiar beta-carotene and alpha-carotene in the carotenoid family of pigments. Also included is the not-as popular lutein. Lycopene gives tomatoes their rich red or orange color. It also gives watermelon and papaya their red tones.

The idea surrounding the ad campaign was that ketchup, made primarily of tomatoes, served as a good source of lycopene. Because lycopene is an antioxidant, Heinz wanted you  to regularly ate ketchup. That way, you’d believe that you’d lower your risk cancer.

If you think back, you’ll realize that the excitement about lycopene died out substantially in 2005. That’s likely because in that year, the FDA said there was no connection between lycopene and reduced cancer risk.

Given that tomatoes are a mainstay for a typical garden salad, I wanted to see if additional research had been done on lycopene. If it isn’t good for reducing the risk of cancer, perhaps it still offers other health benefits?

Here’s what I found:

Evidence lacking for cancer risk reduction

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR.org) has been studying the variables related to prostate cancer for many years in its Continuous Update Project (CUP) report. The report looks at the impact of diet, nutrition, and physical activity on prostate cancer. Just as the FDA found no connection between lycopene and cancer risk reduction, the 2014 CUP report stated that no evidence was available to conclude that lycopene reduced risk of prostate cancer.

I did find one study that linked lycopene intake to heart-protective properties. The 2013 study, reported in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, found that in middle-aged people who were somewhat overweight, higher levels of lycopene in the diet might offer possible heart-protective benefits.

Another study conducted in Finland published in the professional journal, Neurology, followed more than a thousand middle-aged male subjects for 12 years. They searched for possible effects of carotenoid protecting against blood clots and strokes. While the other carotenoid antioxidants studies showed no connection to stroke risk reduction, the men with the greatest concentrations of lycopene in their body were 55 percent less likely to suffer from a stroke.

Getting your daily dose of lycopene

According to research referenced in an American Institute for Cancer Research article, lycopene comes in two chemical structures—one is straight and the other is crooked. The crooked type is more than twice as readily absorbed by the body. Surprise, different colored tomatoes contain different structures—orange-colored tomatoes have 95% of lycopene in the crooked structure. Research showed that people who ate the orange-colored tomatoes absorbed almost eight times more lycopene than those who ate the typical red tomato. However, heating red tomatoes makes their lycopene more absorbable. Also, pairing lycopene with fat increases absorption.

In this article from the Harvard Health Blog, Dr. Giovanucci, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health recommends at least 10,000mg per day of lycopene in your diet. He cautions against using supplements to get the daily amount he recommends. After all, you never know what other molecules in your food might interact with lycopene to make it more beneficial. It’s also easy get the daily amount from foods we eat all the time. A half-cup of marinara sauce has close to two-thirds of what you need, while a wedge of watermelon has close to 13,000mg.

My takeaway on lycopene

Looking into this topic was fascinating. It shows you that you have to do your own research, that marketing campaigns can convince you to eat things for the wrong reasons. While lycopene may not reduce your risk of cancer, it does offer heart-health benefits. Plus, if you use tomatoes as your source for it, you also get vitamins C and E, high amounts of potassium, and other carotenoids.

While I know that it’s not tomato season just yet, in some places you can get a greenhouse-grown tomato that is pretty close in taste to a summer-ripe tomato. Or, you can let a winter-purchased tomato ripen on your counter. So if you have a craving for a salad with tomato, why not try my latest recipe for Chicken Cobb Salad? I promise you’ll love it!

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