At a loyal reader’s request, I am taking a look at Lycopene in our food and if it can benefit a healthy lifestyle.
Subscriber, Renee G said, “LYCOPENE: I would love to know what foods have it, how the body uses it, and if there is research showing effects on skin cancer rates.”
What is Lycopene?
(Lie-co-peen) – is a chemical compound that gives some vegetables and fruits, their vibrant color. Found in watermelons, pink grapefruits, apricots, guava, papaya, and red oranges; and particularly high amounts in tomatoes and tomato products.
In North America, 85% of dietary lycopene comes from tomato products such as tomato juice or paste. One cup of tomato juice provides about 23 mg of lycopene. Processing raw tomatoes using heat, such as in the making of tomato juice, tomato paste or ketchup; actually forms a compound much easier for the body to use. Supplements are about as easy for the body to use as natural lycopene found in food.
Lycopene is not just found in red vegetables, but is critical in the process of photosynthesis for plants, algae and other photosynthetic organisms. A natural step in pigment development and also protects these organisms from excessive light damage.
Lycopene and our bodies
Humans cannot produce it naturally, but must eat fruits, absorb it, and process it for use in the body.
However, ideal consumption occurs from cooked tomato paste and was shown to be at levels 3.8 times than from fresh tomatoes. The chemical is altered by the temperature changes involved in processing, to make it more easily absorbed by the body.
In a 1995 landmark Harvard study, a group of epidemiologist, monitored the dietary habits of 48,000 men over a period of six years.
Research found that of the 46 fruits and vegetables evaluated it was only the tomato-based foods that were beneficial in lowering the risk of prostate cancer, and lycopene was implicated as the active ingredient. Those men who ate ten or more servings of tomato-based products per week had a 34 percent lower risk of contracting prostate cancer.
The doctors concluded these results because of two factors in lycopene:
It acts as an antioxidant in the body, protecting cells against damage from the free radicals formed when body cells burn oxygen for energy.
It is easily absorbed into our bodies, then stored in discrete places, such as the prostate gland and testes, which makes it a particular benefit in men.
Research has been inconclusive in determining if lycopene can help lower the risk of breast cancer in women; however, data suggest the intake of dietary lycopene can play a role in the prevention of ovarian and cervical cancers, especially in postmenopausal women. (see footnote 1)
According to the Mayo Clinic, the use of lycopene, together with other nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E could be a possible way to protect skin from sun damage. Although benefits have been seen in small studies, more research is needed before a firm conclusion. No conclusive research has been completed to determine whether or not lycopene can prevent skin cancer.
Overall Benefits of Lycopene
It has long been proven that eating five serves of fresh fruit and vegetables each day can improve your health on various levels.
Some believe by increasing your lycopene levels, you can reduce the risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
As an antioxidant, lycopene is widely recognized as reducing blood LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) in human; however, due to lack of substantial evidence the Food & Drug Administration rejected a request in 2005 by the pharmaceutical industry to allow “qualified labeling” for lycopene and the reduction of various cancer risks.
However, BHiA.org claims, “Increasing your intake each day, with fruits and vegetables that are high in lycopene can also have the added benefit of preventing deadly strokes, particularly in men. Many studies have been tested, and the outcome shows that males with a high level of lycopene in their blood were 55% less likely to become a stoke candidate.”
Be aware that most studies warn the potential to eat too much lycopene is real. An overabundance level can have negative affects on our immune system. Illnesses involving fever or infection can be aggravated by too much lycopene in the body, preventing your body to naturally heal itself.
Also, eating too much lycopene can alter the pigment of your skin, causing it to take on an orange tint; however, high doses much be taken, over an extended amount of time.
Bottom Line on Lycopene
It is found naturally in several foods
When eating any kind of fruit or vegetable, the health benefits far outweigh the negative side-affects.
When cooking with vegetables high in lycopene, add olive oil! Antioxidant absorption will be faster.
Regardless if scientist have PROVEN the exact benefits of lycopene, the fruits and vegetables which make lycopene naturally have substantial nutritional value.
As you can see in this dietary report card, Americans do not consume enough fruits and vegetables. We need to set a better example for our children and for our own health.
How often do you eat fruits and vegetables?
Cramer DW, Kuper H, Harlow BL, Titus-Ernstoff L. Carotenoids, antioxidants and ovarian cancer risk in pre- and postmenopausal women. Int’l J. of Cancer 2001; 94:128-134
Goodman MT, Kiviat N, McDuffie K, Hankin JH, Hernandez B, Wilkens LR, Franke A, Kuypers J, Kolonel LN, Nakamura J, Ing G, Branch B, Bertram CC, Kamemoto L, Sharma S, Killeen J. The association of plasma micronutrients with the risk of cervical dysplasia in Hawaii. Cancer Epidemiol Biomark Prev 7:537-544, 1998