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Food for Thought
Apr/May 2011 Issue
A good reason to eat your tomatoes
Lycopene has been associated with wellness for many years but recently researchers have verified significant health benefits linked to this important phytonutrient. It may be one of the most powerful antioxidants ever discovered.
Lycopene is a red pigment found in certain vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes, watermelon, papayas, guavas, pink grapefruit and red bell peppers (not strawberries or cherries).
Unlike other free radical-fighting antioxidants whose effectiveness is diminished when exposed to heat, cooking actually increases the concentration and effectiveness of lycopene. That’s why tomato paste, tomato sauce, pizza sauce, tomato juice—even ketchup—have higher concentrations of lycopene than do fresh tomatoes.
The world’s best food source of lycopene is gac, an Asian fruit not available in this country. Over 80 percent of the lycopene in the American diet comes from tomato products.
Lycopene is fat soluble, which means it is most efficiently extracted and used by the body when it’s consumed with healthy fats such as olive oil—another reason why Italian cuisine and the Mediterranean diet are good for us. Lycopene is carried by way of the fat-transport system in the intestines where it incorporates itself into the low density lipoprotein (LDL) portion of cholesterol. Generally regarded as unhealthy, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol causes oxidative damage to the blood vessels, leading to coronary artery disease. Lycopene reduces LDL’s damage potential, lessening the harmful impact. It’s also been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels overall. In addition, studies suggest that lycopene may have a positive effect on blood pressure.
A study published in Osteoporosis International suggested that lycopene may contribute to bone health in women by decreasing oxidative stress and resulting bone resorption, thereby helping to reduce damage from osteoporosis.
There’s good news for men, too. A Harvard study revealed that prostate health can benefit considerably by incorporating lycopene-rich foods into the diet. Men who regularly consumed tomato sauce (over two servings a week) had a lower incidence of prostate cancer than those who did not. There are also reports that eating more tomato products results in lower rates of prostatitis, an inflammation of the prostate.
In addition, populations that eat high amounts of lycopene-rich products have reduced incidence of cancers of the digestive tract, including stomach and colon cancer.
Lycopene is available as a supplement but it appears that this powerful antioxidant is more potent when it’s consumed in foods as part of a well-balanced diet. Why? Researchers speculate that lycopene works best when it interacts synergistically with other phytonutrients and compounds naturally present in whole foods.