Tomatoes and Lycopene
When it comes to ‘superfoods’, tomatoes are among the most accessible. They are easy to find in the shops and not prohibitively expensive like other superfoods such as pomegranates, blueberries or goji berries. They are even easy to grow – if you’ve got the space.
So why are tomatoes so special?
What Nutrients Are in Tomatoes?
Tomatoes are a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Potassium and Manganese, and a good source of Vitamin E, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper.
As well as this, tomatoes are currently the best known natural source of the phytonutrient lycopene.
Lycopene – a Protective Antioxidant
Lycopene is a natural pigment that gives the tomato its red colour. It is also one of our most powerful antioxidants.
Antioxidants have a protective effect on our cells and are often described as being ‘anti-aging’. Lycopene in particular has been noted for its ability to protect DNA and prevent disease, and it continues to be the subject of studies on heart disease and cancer.
In response to positive results from these studies, supplementation companies have released a number of lycopene supplements on to the market. However, many of these studies also support tomatoes in preference to supplements. It appears that the combination of nutrients in tomatoes is the key to lycopene’s health-promoting properties.
Tomato Purée vs Tomatoes – Which is Nutritionally the Best?
Unlike most fruits and vegetables, where nutritional content decreases with cooking, processing tomatoes increases the concentration of bioavailable lycopene.
Lycopene in tomato purée is four times more bioavailable than in fresh tomatoes. Other products, which contain higher concentrations of lycopene than raw tomatoes include pasteurised tomato juice, tomato soup and tomato sauce.
Because of its greater concentration of lycopene, tomato purée – also known by its Italian name passata di pomodoro – is often used in scientific tests. It consists of tomatoes that have been cooked briefly and strained to give a thick liquid. The ingredients of tomato purée should be 100 per cent tomatoes and nothing else – and if you can find an organic purée all the better.
TOMATO TIP: Use tomato purée in place of sugar-laden
tomato ketchup at meal times.
The Best Way to Absorb Lycopene From Your Food
To get the most out of our food, our body needs to be able to absorb the nutrients. To get the most out of tomatoes:
- Choose processed tomatoes (purée, paste, soup or sauces) or crush and cook them yourself.
- Check the labels on any tomato products you buy and opt for those displaying only natural ingredients.
- Serve tomatoes with olive oil. As lycopene is fat-soluble, this increases absorption during digestion.
Recent Tomato Research:
• Tomato Lycopene and Bone Health
In a study published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, a higher intake of lycopene was found to be associated with a lower risk of hip fracture, suggesting a protective role in bone health.
• Tomato Lycopene and Sun Protection
Lycopene is thought to neutralise the harmful effects of UV light. In 2008, the British Society for Investigative Dermatology presented research on the use of tomato lycopene as a sun-protection aid.
In their study, a group of people who received 55 grams (five tablespoons) of tomato paste with 10g of olive oil a day for 12 weeks showed 33 per cent more protection against sunburn.
As good as this sounds, tomato eaters should not consider giving up their sun cream as this increase in protection is equivalent to a sun protection factor of only 1.3. However, the longer your diet includes good quantities of lycopene, the greater the effect.
• Tomato Lycopene and Skin Aging
Increasing levels of lycopene in your diet could also have a positive effect on the skin aging process, keeping you looking younger for longer – and who wouldn’t want that!
The British Society for Investigative Dermatology found lycopene to boost levels of pro-collagen – which gives skin its structure and elasticity – and reduce damage to mitochondrial DNA in the skin.
• Tomatoes and Men’s Health – Prostate and Fertility
Research suggests that men who suffer from infertility often have low lycopene levels. Lycopene is believed to help in the production of agile sperm by fighting off free radicals, which can damage their cells and DNA. As well as lycopene, tomatoes contain good levels of vitamin C, potassium and folic acid, all of which are needed for male fertility.
In a study conducted by Portsmouth University, healthy men who ate 400g of tomato soup every day for two weeks increased their lycopene levels by between 7 and 12%.
Regular consumption of tomatoes is also thought to boost prostate health – important for sperm production – and lower the risk of prostate cancer.
• Tomatoes and Asthma
Tomatoes were found to soothe inflammation in the airways of asthma sufferers in a trial at Australia’s Hunter Medical Research Institute. Scientists saw improvements in lung health after test subjects consumed a lycopene-rich diet with three glasses of tomato juice (the equivalent of 1.5kg of fresh tomatoes) a day over a period of time.