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Looking at Lycopene

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Ongoing research indicates that lycopene consumption may inhibit a variety of commonly occurring cancers as well as offer benefits to those with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and some eye disorders.

Ongoing research indicates that lycopene consumption may inhibit a variety of commonly occurring cancers as well as offer benefits to those with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and some eye disorders.

What is Lycopene?

Lycopene is a carotenoid, a fat-soluble pigment that imparts the red colour to tomatoes (the most common and richest source), guava, rosehip, watermelon, and pink grapefruit. Occurring naturally in food, lycopene is part of the same family of nutrients as beta-carotene. The human body does not produce it.

How Does Lycopene Work?

As an antioxidant, lycopene is believed to inhibit and possibly repair oxidative DNA damage, which may be an underlying cause of some cancers. Concentrations of lycopene in body tissues - the liver, lungs, prostate gland, colon, and skin - are normally higher than other carotenoids.

Although fresh tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, the heat used to process tomato-based products - tomato juice, sauces, ketchup, soups, and so on - appears to increase the bioavailability of this nutrient. Some manufacturers and researchers also believe that absorption is aided by the presence of carotenoids such as phytoene and phytofluene, as well as vitamin E - antioxidants that occur naturally with lycopene in tomatoes.

Proven Benefits

Studies that focus on the effects of diet and lifestyle on disease have shown that high-intake of lycopene-containing fruit is inversely associated with the incidence of cancer of the digestive tract and prostate. Preliminary research also indicates increased lycopene intake may be associated with reduced risk of macular degeneration, serum lipid oxidation, and cancers of the breast, lung, bladder, cervix, and skin. Ongoing studies at the University of Toronto and the American Health Foundation are currently studying the benefits of lycopene in digestive tract, breast, and prostate cancer. The possible benefits for those with cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis are also being investigated.

How should I take it?

Given that most of the research favouring lycopene has involved food sources, increasing our intake of these products seems a logical starting point (see chart). In addition, lycopene is available as a food supplement. Most manufacturers in Canada favour a balanced product containing lycopene’s naturally occurring and synergistic co-nutrients, such as phytoene and phytofluene, as well as vitamin E. At present there are no firm recommendations regarding dosage although participants in a Harvard University study had the greatest benefit with daily consumption levels of 6.5 mg or above.

The Bottom Line

Research to date indicates that lycopene shows exceptional promise in the fight against cancer and a variety of other common ailments. Lycopene is definitely a nutrient to watch.

ProductLycopene (mg/100 g)
Tomato paste, 2 Tbsp (30 ml)
Tomato sauce, 1/4 cup (60 ml)
Spaghetti sauce, 1/2 cup (125 ml)
Tomato ketchup, 1 Tbsp (15 ml)
Tomato juice, 1 cup (250 ml)
Tomato soup, prepared, 1 cup (250 ml)
Watermelon, 10 x 1 in (25 x 2.5 cm) slice
Pink grapefruit, 1/2 medium
Raw tomato, 1 medium
42.2
14.1
21.9
15.9
9.5
7.2
4
4
3
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