Lycopene is a red carotenoid pigment that occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, guava, papaya, red/pink grapefruit and watermelon. It is the most common carotenoid in the human body and is one of the most potent carotenoid antioxidants.
Lycopene is locked away inside the cells of the food but is released by processing. This is why cooked tomatoes release five times more lycopene than eating raw tomatoes. The richest dietary sources of this carotenoid are therefore tomato ketchup, concentrated tomato puree and passata.
Benefits of lycopene
Circulation: lycopene has a number of beneficial effects within the circulatory system. Studies suggest that people who eat the most tomatoes and tomato products are a third less likely to develop heart disease that those who eat few. Lycopene appears to reduce atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and damage from oxidation.
Recent research involving over 4,400 adults also suggests that high intakes of carotenoids are associated with a lower risk of developing hypertension.
Prostate health: Men with benign prostate enlargement who took 15mg lycopene per day for six months had less enlargement and progression of their symptoms than those taking an inactive placebo.
Another study found that men who consumed more than 10 servings of tomato products per week were a third less likely to develop prostate problems than men consuming less than 1.5 servings per week.
Macular degeneration: Like two other carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, lycopene helps to protect against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common cause of reduced vision. Those with low lycopene intakes have more than double the risk of developing AMD than those with high intakes.
Skin health: lycopene has been found to protect the skin from degenerating, and from the harmful rays of the sun. It is also a powerful antioxidant so it helps to slow down and reverse the aging of cells.
Degenerative diseases: People who eat the most tomatoes and have the highest blood lycopene levels appear to have a lower risk of certain degenerative diseases.
Lycopene is fat soluble so it is best absorbed when cooked with a little fat. It has also found to be three times more abundant in organic foods than non-organic alternatives.