The health benefits of lycopene

Heat Treatment

“A woman is like a tea bag.”

I remember hearing Nancy Reagan say that years ago. The simile goes on: “You don’t know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.”

I thought of that last week when I read a new study about lycopene, the antioxidant carotenoid that gives tomatoes, watermelons and pink grapefruit their red color. Although most of us eat our watermelon and grapefruit raw, when tomatoes are heated, the benefits of lycopene are enhanced because it’s more easily absorbed by the body.

This is a useful nutrition tip because your body puts lycopene to work in a number of valuable ways. In previous e-Alerts I’ve told you about studies that have shown lycopene to offer protection against breast cancer, prostate cancer and heart disease.

Now a new study shows that another type of cancer might be added to that list.

What’s on the plate?

Pancreatic cancer is sometimes referred to as a silent disease because the symptoms are subtle and it’s difficult to treat unless caught in the early stages. That’s why efforts to prevent this cancer are all the more important.

A team of researchers from two Canadian universities and the Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Control at Health Canada designed a study to examine a possible link between pancreatic cancer risk and dietary carotenoid intake. Subjects included 462 patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than 4,700 healthy people selected from eight Canadian provinces.

Dietary intake for all subjects was assessed with food frequency questionnaires over a period of four years. As reported in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that beta-carotene and total carotenoid intake was associated with a significantly reduced risk of pancreatic cancer among non-smoking subjects. Smoking is believed to be one of the primary causes of pancreatic cancer.

The most striking result concerned lycopene. When those who had the least lycopene intake were compared with those who had the greatest intake, subjects in the latter group were found to have a 31 percent reduced risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

The Canadian team noted that lycopene intake was provided mainly by tomatoes or tomato products.

Bring the fromage

As I’ve noted in previous e-Alerts, the richest dietary source of lycopene is tomatoes. But there are a couple of tricks that may enhance the way your body puts lycopene to work.

In the e-Alert “Defensive Star of the Year” (1/14/04), I told you about a Cornell University study that showed how cooking tomatoes does two things: it boosts the antioxidant activity of lycopene while improving absorption in the digestive tract.

And in the e-Alert “Icing The Pizza” (7/30/03), I examined studies suggesting that eating cooked tomatoes along with a source of fat – such as cheese or meat – may improve lycopene absorption as well.

But if you’re not a big fan of tomatoes, watermelon is an excellent alternative because it’s one of the few foods that deliver both lycopene and beta-carotene.

A 2003 study from the USDA revealed that the juice from three cups of diced watermelon, taken daily, may result in blood serum lycopene and beta-carotene concentrations that are five times higher than in people who don’t get a good intake of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Keeping it whole

One final note about lycopene: You’ll probably get higher antioxidant protection from the lycopene in tomatoes and watermelon than from a lycopene supplement.

An Ohio State University study revealed that lycopene was most effective (in this case, against prostate cancer in rats) when tomatoes were the source, compared to using a supplement of lycopene. This trial implies that the benefits of lycopene may be more pronounced when the phytochemical is accompanied by other natural chemicals in the tomato.

The test doesn’t dismiss the usefulness of lycopene supplements. But if you really want the full benefit of lycopene, the best choice would be a whole-food source.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute