Tomatoes contain lycopene, a red carotenoid pigment and phytonutrient that is also found in watermelon, pink grapefruit, pink guava, and papaya.
Lycopene is responsible for the red color of tomatoes. In the tomato plant, lycopene helps in the process of photosynthesis and protects the plant from excessive light damage. Lycopene is a potent antioxidant, one of the estimated 600 naturally occurring carotenoids.
Although lycopene is not an essential nutrient for humans, it can accumulate in certain tissues and high intakes of lycopene may protect against some cancers and cardiovascular disease1. There are many mechanisms by which lycopene may protect against cancer. Lycopene is a potent antioxidant and can eliminate damaging free radicals in the body’s tissues, in addition to increasing production of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes2.
Lycopene has received the most attention for its possible protection against prostate cancer in men2. Many studies have found that men with higher intakes of tomatoes and tomato products have a lower risk of prostate cancer. Based on these studies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a qualified health claim regarding the relationship between tomatoes and prostate cancer, stating “very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer”.
Several studies have examined the relationship between lycopene levels in the body and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Lower levels of lycopene in the body tend to be associated with early atherosclerosis and a higher risk of heart attack.
Did You Know?
Tomatoes can be many other colors besides red, including yellow, orange, green and purple. The next time you visit your local farmers market, look for heirloom tomatoes. Although they look quite different from the standard red tomatoes in the supermarket, people often say their taste is far superior.
Tomato sauce and ketchup have higher lycopene contents than raw tomatoes.
Lycopene, like other carotenoids, is fat-soluble, which means it must be eaten with fat to be absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. As little as 3-5 grams of fat in the meal is usually sufficient for lycopene to be absorbed.
Originally, tomatoes grew wild in the South American Andes. They were about the size of cherries and grew as berries.
The modern tomato was developed in Mexico, where it was called “tomatil”.
Although botanically tomatoes are a fruit, in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes were vegetables, not fruits!
People in U.S. each consume, on average, 80 pounds of tomatoes every year.
The largest tomato on record is 7 pounds and was grown in Oklahoma.
Enjoy the health benefits of tomatoes by finding and preparing tomato recipes.
1. Ciccone MM, Cortese F, Gesulado M, et al. Dietary intake of careotenoids and their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in cardiovascular care. Mediators Inflamm. 2013:782137.
2. Vance TM, Su J, Fontham ET, Koo SI, Chun OK. Dietary antioxidants and prostate cancer: a review. Nutr Cancer. 2013;65(6): 793-