By Jaime Harder, M.A., R.D.
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Fashion designer Bill Blass once said, "Red is the ultimate cure for sadness." Scientists haven't proven that, but they are finding evidence that the red-pigmented antioxidant lycopene, found in many fruits and vegetables -- especially tomatoes -- may play an important role in reducing risks of many diseases, including cancer.
Since the 1980s, when scientists discovered lycopene's powerful antioxidant activity (that is, its potential ability to help prevent and repair cell damage), several studies have linked diets high in tomatoes with lower risks of certain cancers.
A Harvard study in the mid-1990s found that men who consumed at least 10 servings of tomato products per week had a 34 percent lower risk of prostate cancer than other men. More recent research suggests that lycopene benefits women, too. Studies have shown that women who consumed diets high in lycopene-rich tomato products had a 30 to 50 percent lower risk of developing clinical breast cancer. And while this research is promising, more studies are needed to confirm lycopene's role regarding reducing cancer risks.
Other studies indicate that high consumption of lycopene may lower the risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis and macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness. Using a major European study and analysis of other research, a University of North Carolina report found that men with higher blood-lycopene levels than other men were less likely to have heart attacks, and Harvard researchers found that women with high blood levels of lycopene had a lower risk of heart disease. Lycopene may also play a role in reducing blood pressure and lowering LDL, or "bad" cholesterol.
Cooking tomatoes weakens the fruits' cell walls, which makes it easier for your body to absorb the lycopene. A half-cup of spaghetti sauce, for example, has as much lycopene as five medium raw tomatoes. In addition, lycopene is fat-soluble, so adding some fat to a dish (for example, combining tomatoes and heart-healthy olive oil -- a classic duo) also enhances its absorption.
There is no Recommended Dietary Allowance or Dietary Reference Intake for lycopene, but studies suggest that about 30 milligrams daily is beneficial. That's roughly 1 1/2 cups tomato juice or a single serving of fettuccine with clams and tomato sauce.
There is a caveat, however. Many processed tomato products have added sugars and salt, and some can be surprising sources of fat and sodium. For example, a serving of regular pasta sauce may have as many as 2 grams fat and 501 milligrams sodium. The same serving of a light version of pasta sauce has no fat and only 357 milligrams of sodium. Low-sodium or no-salt-added tomato products have less sodium than standard versions; organic tomato products also tend to be lower in sodium; always check labels. Also, look for fat-free and low-fat tomato, spaghetti, and pizza sauces. You can always add a small amount of fat to a fat-free product to help your body absorb the lycopene and still keep the overall fat in check.
Easy ways to add lycopene
Acquiring lycopene can be as simple as smearing ketchup on a sandwich bun or sipping a cup of tomato juice, but there are many ways to boost the antioxidant in your diet. The related recipes offer tasty options. Some, such as Hearty Beef and Tomato Stew and Romesco Sauce, use several tomato products.
Current research suggests 30 milligrams daily is enough to offer lycopene's health benefits. Cooked tomatoes or processed tomato products, which are available year round, have a greater concentration of lycopene than raw tomatoes. Besides tomatoes, other pink- and red-hued fruits contain lycopene.
These are the lycopene amounts for some often-used products:
1 tablespoon tomato ketchup: 2.5 milligrams
1 tablespoon chili sauce: 2.2 milligrams
1/4 cup cocktail sauce: 7.3 milligrams
1/4 cup tomato sauce: 9.3 milligrams
1/2 cup spaghetti sauce: 20 milligrams
These are some non-tomato sources:
1/2 pound watermelon: 10.3 milligrams
1 whole pink grapefruit: 2.9 milligrams
1 papaya: 3 milligrams
More than lycopene
You can get lycopene in a supplement, but consuming foods such as canned tomatoes or guava bestows benefits beyond lycopene, including vitamins A, C, and E; folate; potassium; and fiber. And these nutrients may work with lycopene to offer health benefits.
Jaime Harder, M.A., R.D., is a freelance recipe developer and writer in New York City.
Copyright 2006 Cooking Light magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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Lycopene is most abundant in tomatoes -- especially in processed products, such as canned tomatoes.