Lycopene is one of more than 600 carotenoids in food, beta carotene being the most famous. Lycopene is the red pigment in red fruits and vegetables. Watermelon is the richest source of lycopene, but other good sources include tomatoes, papaya, pink grapefruit, and guava (strawberries are red, but they get their color from another compound other than lycopene). Like beta carotene, lycopene is an antioxidant but has twice the antioxidant capabilities of beta carotene. That biological function is one of the reasons lycopene lowers heart disease risk. A Harvard School of Public Health study, where researchers analyzed blood samples from more than 28,000 women, found that over the following 4.8 years women with the highest blood levels of lycopene had up to a 50% lower risk for developing heart disease. Their blood levels of lycopene reflected their dietary intake. The antioxidant capability of lycopene also might explain why diets rich in this carotenoid are associated with lower risks for all sorts of cancers, especially cancers of the prostate, cervix, skin, bladder, breast, lung and digestive tract. Eating lycopene-rich foods also might help protect skin from sun damage.
No one knows how much lycopene is needed, but studies show that people who include anywhere from 7 to 10 servings a week of lycopene-rich foods have the lowest risk for heart disease. Blood levels of this heart-healthy compound decrease with age, so the older we are, the more we need. Women with the lowest heart-disease risk in one study averaged about 10 milligrams or more of lycopene a day. That’s the equivalent of about a 1/2 cup of tomato sauce or a cup of cubed watermelon daily. The average American gets only 3.6 milligrams, or slightly more than a third of that.
Lycopene is best absorbed and most helpful to the body when it comes from cooked and processed foods. Fresh tomatoes also supply lycopene, each one adding about 4 to 5 milligrams of lycopene to the diet. Studies show that people who include seven or more fresh tomatoes into their weekly diet have up to a 60% reduction in cancer. Choose deep-red tomatoes, since they have more lycopene than pale red, yellow, or green tomatoes. Vine-ripened tomatoes have more than those picked green and allowed to ripen later; those grown outdoors in the summer have more lycopene than those grown in greenhouses. Watermelon is richest in lycopene if allowed to ripen on the counter, instead of in the refrigerator. Also, the redder the watermelon, the greater the lycopene. You need a little fat to boost absorption of lycopene, so drizzle olive oil over a salad with tomatoes or make a salsa with avocado and watermelon.
Tomatoes pack a nutritious bang for each bite, but keep in mind that lycopene is only one of thousands of phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables that help lower your risk for heart disease, and all other age-related diseases, and might even help slow the aging process.
Gloria N, Soares N, Brand C, et al: Lycopene and beta carotene induce cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in human breast cancer cell lines. Anticancer Research 2014;34:1377-1386./Wang X: Lycopene metabolism and its biological significance. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012;96:1214S-1222S./Stahl W, Sies H: Beta carotene and other carotenoids in protection from sunlight. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012;96:1179S-1184S.