|Research on Your Plate|
Reach for the Reds
Hot summer days are the perfect time to see red: think watermelon and tomatoes. In the world of fruits and veggies, red and pink colors indicate the presence of lycopene, a phytochemical that research suggests may help ward off prostate cancer as well as provide other health benefits (such as lower risk of heart attacks).
Lycopene is one of the approximately 600 carotenoids, a group of phytochemicals that include beta-carotene. Plants can produce lycopene, but the human body can’t. After we consume a food that contains this compound, our blood transports and deposits it in various organs and tissues, including the prostate and liver.
In the lab, studies show that lycopene acts as a powerful antioxidant, which can decrease DNA damage that can lead to cancer. Among the carotenoids found in our diets, research suggests that lycopene is one of the most efficient antioxidants in the body. Overall, population studies suggest that men who consistently consume foods high in lycopene over their lifetime have a reduced risk of prostate cancer.
Most human studies on the role of lycopene-containing foods in cancer prevention involve tomatoes, simply because Americans eat tomatoes and tomato products more often than other lycopene-rich foods.
Ongoing studies are also investigating lycopene’s possible link with lower risk of lung, breast, and mouth cancers.
Want more lycopene in your day? Try these:
Tomatoes and watermelon are two fruits – now in season – both rich in lycopene (yes, technically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). Along with lycopene, watermelons and tomatoes are also loaded with vitamins C and A.
Lycopene is fat-soluble (i.e., it dissolves in oil) and studies suggest that a little oil eaten with the lycopene-containing food helps our bodies absorb it. Although in many cases heat can reduce the amount of nutrients and other healthful compounds in vegetables and fruit, lycopene appears to be an exception. Studies have found that consuming cooked tomatoes boosts the absorption of lycopene.
A study published last year may help explain why: Researchers found intense heat changed the shape of the lycopene molecule from its naturally straight form into a bent shape, which is what it looks like when it’s found circulating in our blood. Participants who then consumed a tomato sauce subjected to intense heat -- with a little oil -- absorbed significantly more lycopene than a comparison group.
The body of research showing that lycopene may prevent prostate cancer is focused on foods that contain lycopene. Unlike lycopene supplements, fruits and vegetables contain numerous healthful compounds, many of which were only recently identified.
Scientists suspect that many of these compounds work together to provide cancer protection and other health benefits, which means enjoying a diet filled with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
You can easily make a refreshing summer salad with double the dose of lycopene by mixing watermelon and tomato together. The newly popular red carrot owes its unique color to increased levels of lycopene.
Lycopene was first isolated in the late 1800s, first from a European yam and then from tomatoes, but it is only in the last few decades that scientists began to link lycopene to health benefits.