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Pass The Pizza

Lycopene. It’s the new green tea.

Some years ago, the healthy benefits of green tea captured the attention of researchers and launched hundreds of clinical trials, many of them reported in e-Alerts and HSI Member Alerts.

Now we’re seeing the same surge of interest in lycopene – a remarkable antioxidant that seems to be getting more and more attention from the research community.

Just last week I came across two new lycopene trials. And although they’re animal studies, there’s a good chance they provide a glimpse into the promising future of lycopene research in two specific areas of health concern: one for women and one for men.

A quail in the hand

Earlier this year, I told you about an important study from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). Using data collected on more than 28,000 women in the Women’s Health Study, researchers found that when the subjects were divided into quartiles – ranging from those with the lowest lycopene level to those with the highest – the women in the upper three quartiles had a 50 percent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with women in the lowest quartile. This outcome confirms a 2002 study that also demonstrated how lycopene intake may offer significant protection against heart disease in women.

Now a new study from Firat University in Turkey (in association with the University of Maryland and Detroit’s Karmanos Cancer institute) indicates that lycopene intake may provide another preventive benefit for women.

The Firat researchers used Japanese quails to assess the effects of lycopene on the development of benign tumors of the uterus called fibroid tumors. (Although they’re benign, these tumors can cause pain, while complicating other health problems.) The quails were used in the trial because fibroid tumors occur naturally in this species.

For 10 months, half the quails received feed with lycopene added, while half received normal feed. In the lycopene group, half the quails received twice the amount of lycopene as the other half. At the end of the trial period, the lycopene group had half as many tumors as the normal-feed group. And among the lycopene quails, those receiving the double dose of lycopene had significantly fewer tumors than the birds that received less of the supplement.

In addition, researchers report that the blood serum concentrations of vitamins A, C and E were higher among the lycopene quails, while homocysteine levels were lower. We’ll have to wait for further studies with human subjects to know if all of these benefits might also hold true for you and me. But until then, this research is very promising.

And one for the men

The other new lycopene study comes from researchers at the Charite Hospital in Berlin, Germany. The opening statement of their published paper reveals the health benefit that lycopene is most well-known for: “Studies have consistently associated high intakes of lycopene or vitamin E with a reduced prostate cancer risk.”

With this study, the Berlin team set out to understand how lycopene and vitamin E provide the prostate with protection. For four weeks, the researchers fed laboratory rats lycopene, vitamin E, or a combination of the two. Other rats received feed without these supplements. At month’s end, prostate cancer cells were injected into the prostates of the rats, prompting tumor growth in all of the rats within two weeks.

Examination of the tumors revealed that both lycopene and vitamin E accumulated in the tumor tissue and prompted a significant reduction of cancer cells. Furthermore, using a new technology that assesses the expression of genes in tumors, researchers determined that lycopene and vitamin E were able to directly inhibit the mechanisms necessary for tumor growth.

Warmth plus fat

The best 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 results in greater absorption of lycopene and a higher antioxidant activity, compared to eating tomatoes raw.

This is an especially important point these days, when more and more people are avoiding high carbohydrate dishes that are often served with tomato sauce, such as spaghetti, lasagna, pizza, etc. A friend of mine tells me that he’s reworked a few stir-fry recipes by adding sliced tomatoes or a cup of fresh tomato sauce toward the end of the cooking time in order to increase his intake of tomatoes.

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

Don’t like tomatoes? You can also get lycopene from watermelon and pink grapefruit. Although cooking them with cheese or meat doesn’t sound very appealing.

“Lycopene Linked to Reduction in Fibroid Tumors – Study Presented at Experimental Biology Meeting Shows Promise for Women” PR Newswire, 4/19/04,
“Lycopene Could Also Fight Tumors in Women”, 4/20/04,
“Lycopene and Vitamin E Interfere with Autocrine/Paracrine Loops in the Dunning Prostate Cancer Model” The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, 4/14/04,
“Lycopene May Act on Male Hormones to Fight Cancer”, 4/15/04,
“Plasma Lycopene, Other Carotenoids, and Retinol and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in Women” American Society for Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 79, No. 1, January 2004,

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