Lycopene is a potent antioxidant that gives foods like tomatoes, goji berries, watermelon, red bell pepper and guava their red color.
Tomatoes, and in particular processed tomato products like tomato sauce, tomato soup and ketchup, are by far the biggest sources of lycopene in the American diet.
There has been a lot of interest in the strong protective properties and potential health benefits of lycopene in recent years. Consequently, it is one of the most studied and researched of all the antioxidant carotenoids.
Here’s how getting more lycopene into your diet can help protect your body against many life-threatening diseases, like cancer and cardiovascular disease and even slow down the visible signs of aging.
Lycopene is a Powerful Antioxidant
Lycopene is one of the most potent of all the known antioxidants. It is said to be twice as powerful as beta-carotene and its concentration within the body and blood plasma is usually higher than any of the other carotenoids.
More and more research is now building to suggest a diet high in natural lycopene can help defend our cells against damaging free radicals.
Free radicals are dangerous oxidizing agents formed in the body when weak molecule bonds split, leaving an unpaired electron. This unpaired electron is unstable and steals an electron from the nearest stable molecule, making it an unstable free radical and so on and so on, creating a dangerous chain reaction within your body’s cells.
Antioxidants like lycopene neutralize free radicals by giving up one of its electrons, without becoming a free radical itself. Good levels of antioxidants circulating in your blood and concentrated in your tissues provide more protection against oxidation from free radicals and the degenerative diseases they can lead to.
How Lycopene Prevents Skin Aging
Lycopene helps protect your skin with its strong antioxidant properties. A good intake of lycopene leads to more of it being concentrated in the skin cells where it can prevent oxidation. Oxidative changes are one of the primary causes of aging of the skin.
Lycopene appears to be one of the most powerful carotenoid quencher of singlet oxygen molecules known, and is around 100 times more efficient at singlet oxygen quenching than vitamin E.
Singlet oxygen molecules are produced when your skin is exposed to UV light and are one of the main causes of skin damage. Studies have shown that you are less likely to get sunburnt from moderate sun exposure when you have a good intake of lycopene in your diet.
This doesn’t mean you can just eat a tomato and lie in the sun all day, but it does seem that lycopene may help protect your skin from sun damage and aging (Lycopene Protects Against Biomarkers of Photo Damage in Human Skin – British Society for Investigative Dermatology Annual Meeting – April 2008.)
Lycopene and Heart Disease
The protective effect of lycopene against cardiovascular disease is another area that shows great promise. Being fat soluble, lycopene is transported with the lipoproteins in the body, where it helps protect against lipid oxidation and inflammation that can contribute to heart disease.
Lycopene may help lower levels of oxidized LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, that has been linked with a hardening of the arteries leading to atherosclerosis (heart disease).
Recent research has shown that women with higher concentrations of lycopene stored in their body fat were much less likely to have a heart attack than those with lower body concentrations. The study conducted by Harvard University was over 5 years and involved nearly 28,000 women.
A 2010 Korean study showed higher levels of lycopene in the blood were associated with lower stiffness in the arteries, lower levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol and lower levels of c-reactive protein – all indicators of risk for heart disease.
The researchers said, “Our findings suggest that serum concentrations of lycopene may play an important role in the early stages atherosclerosis.” (Independent Inverse Relationship between Serum Lycopene Concentration and Arterial Stiffness – Atherosclerosis – Feb 2010.)
Two more studies from Finland concluded that, “Low plasma lycopene concentrations are associated with early atherosclerosis… and circulating levels of lycopene, a biomarker of tomato rich food, may play a role in the early stages of atherogenesis and may have clinical and public health relevance.” (Low Plasma Lycopene Concentration is Associated with Increased Inter-media Thickness of the Carotid Artery Wall – Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology – Dec 2000 and Lycopene, Atherosclerosis and Coronary Heart Disease – Experimental Biology and Medicine – Nov 2002).
Tomato, Lycopene and Cancer
Regular intake of the antioxidant carotenoid lycopene, from good food sources like tomatoes and processed tomato products, has been associated with a lower incidence of certain types of cancers – especially prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, and cancers of the digestive tract – but many other types are being studied and the protective mechanisms are often similar.
Ahead are some of the more interesting studies I’ve found on lycopene cancer research.
Prostate Cancer and Lycopene
In a study at Harvard University of almost 48,000 men it was found that those who ate more than two servings of tomato sauce a week were up to 36% less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than those who consumed less than one serving of tomato sauce a month over a 12 year period (Journal National Cancer Institute – December 6, 1995).
This is a very big percentage for such a large study over such a long period. Good news for men who like tomatoes and tomato products. Those who don’t might want to consider some of the other food sources of lycopene below or a good lycopene and mixed carotenoid supplement like this.
Lycopene for Pancreatic Cancer
A Canadian study investigating the effects of dietary carotenoids on pancreatic cancer risk over several years found that lycopene from tomatoes was associated with a 31% reduction in pancreatic cancer for those who consumed the most tomatoes/tomato products versus those who consume the least (Dietary Intake of Lycopene is Associated with Reduced Pancreatic Cancer Risk – The Journal of Nutrition – March 2005).
Lung Cancer and Lycopene
Another study into the effects of carotenoid consumption on the incidence of lung cancer found a significant reduction in lung cancer risk was associated with higher lycopene intake in the diet (Colorful Cancer Prevention: Alpha Carotene, Lycopene and Lung Cancer – American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – October 2000.)
Two passages from the studies notes really stood out to me:
The first – “Diets that provide 400 to 600 grams of fruit and vegetables daily are associated with a reduced risk of lung and other aerodigestive epithelial cancers. Fruit and vegetables contain a variety of carotenoids that have been shown to have antioxidant and antitumor effects. Although smoking is the cause of >90% of all lung cancers, an increased intake of fruit and vegetables has been associated with
a decreased risk of lung cancer in smokers and non-smokers.”
And the second: “A significant reduction in cancer risk was noted with an increased intake of lycopene, even in smokers. Interestingly, smoking alters the concentrations of most carotenoids, including alpha carotene and beta carotene but not lycopene. Therefore, lycopene may have a special role in lung cancer prevention.”
It would seem smokers would do well to get into extra tomatoes and tomato products.
Eating Tomatoes Linked to a Lower Risk of Cancer
Finally, in more of a overall summary study entitled – Tomatoes, Tomato-based Products, Lycopene and Cancer: Review of the Epidemiologic Literature in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, studies regarding intake of tomatoes, tomato-based products of blood lycopene levels in relation to the risk of various cancers were reviewed.
To quote: “Among 72 studies identified, 57 reported inverse (positive) associations between tomato intake or blood lycopene levels and the risk of cancer defined at the anatomic site; 35 of the inverse associations were statistically significant. No study indicated that higher tomato consumption or blood lycopene level statistically significantly increase the risk of cancer at any of the investigated sites.”
Some further entries from the study:
On tomatoes, lycopene and stomach cancer – “While other fruits and vegetables have frequently been inversely associated with stomach cancer, inverse associations with tomatoes have been amongst the most consistent and strongest.”
On colorectal cancer and lycopene – “Case controlled studies in Italy and China reported about a 60% reduction in the risk of both colon and rectal cancers associated with higher tomato consumption.”
On lycopene and prostate cancer – “High intake of tomatoes and tomato products, which accounted for 82% of lycopene, reduced risk of total prostate cancer by 35% and aggressive prostate cancer by 53%. Tomato sauce had the strongest inverse association with prostate cancer risk.”
Studies like these can give us an idea of the potential benefits of a health nutrient like lycopene. The official line is that there is not enough evidence yet to recommend lycopene. Meanwhile cancers like prostate, pancreatic and lung cancer kill many thousands of people in the USA every year.
We may not have enough empirical evidence yet, but personally, after researching this detailed article on lycopene health benefits for cancer and heart disease, I have more than enough reasons to increase my lycopene dosage and intake.
How to Get More Lycopene into Your Diet
Strangely, for such a valuable antioxidant, lycopene doesn’t appear in high concentrations in nearly as many foods as beta-carotene does. Fortunately, one that it does, tomatoes, are a popular food in American and European diets.
Processed tomatoes generally have a much higher lycopene content than fresh tomatoes as making them into tomato sauce, ketchup, tomato paste or tomato soup releases more of the lycopene from the cell walls and increases its bio-availability.
Provided the tomato products aren’t filled with other unhealthy ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, it seems like this is one of the rare cases where the processed food is actually healthier than the fresh one.
Like other carotenoids, lycopene is fat soluble and requires dietary fat to be present, preferably within a meal, to help absorption. A low-fat diet may decrease your intake of lycopene, even if you are eating fresh tomatoes regularly.
Another very good source of lycopene are goji berries. Those little red berry really are a health-giving powerhouse covering so many nutritional bases. Amazon have high-quality organic goji berries full of antioxidants like lycopene and lutein and zeaxanthin for our eyes, as well as a broad range of vitamins and minerals.
Other reasonable sources of lycopene include watermelons, guava, papaya, pink grapefruit, red and orange bell pepper and apricots. Though you’d require a fair amount of these to get a beneficial intake of lycopene.
All in all, tomatoes and tomato products like tomato sauce, tomato paste, a good-quality organic ketchup (low in sugar and salt and especially no fructose syrup) and tomato soup eaten regularly seem like the simplest way to get a good intake of antioxidant lycopene.
There is currently no recommended daily allowance for lycopene but studies showing beneficial effects are generally around at least 6 to 10 mg per day and possibly as high as 20 mg and 30 mg for therapeutic levels. As with any high dosages of nutrients, it is always a good idea to discuss this with a knowledgeable health professional.
It is usually best to split the dosage morning and night and have it with meals that contain some dietary fat. Alternatively, eat lycopene rich foods or take lycopene supplements at the same time as healthy oils like avocado oil or coconut oil.
If you don’t like tomatoes or feel you might not be getting enough lycopene and think you could use the extra antioxidant protection, Jarrow Formulas make a high quality lycopene supplement with mixed carotenoids.
Lycopene supplements should ideally have mixed carotenoids from food sources or be taken with foods that contain other carotenoids like beta-carotene. Carrots, pumpkins and green leafy vegetables would be good examples of carotenoid rich foods.
The bioavailability of lycopene has been shown to be much higher when taken with beta-carotene than when taken in isolation. Once again, these nutrients work together to provide their beneficial effects on the body.
I hope this detailed article has provided many good reasons to get more lycopene into your diet for it’s many health benefits. Cancer and heart disease are two of the world’s biggest killers and no one wants to look any older than they have to so remember tomatoes when you’re planning your next meal.
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