Lycopene, a member of the carotenoid family and a pigment that contributes to the red color of tomatoes, is a major contributor to their health-promoting power. Lycopene has demonstrated a range of unique and distinct biological properties that have intrigued scientists. Some researchers have come to believe that lycopene could be as powerful an antioxidant as beta-carotene. We do know that lycopene is the most efficient quencher of the free-radical singlet oxygen, a particularly deleterious form of oxygen, and lycopene is also capable of scavenging a large number of free radicals.
Lycopene is a nutrient whose time in the spotlight has come. It’s been the subject of great interest lately as more and more researchers have focused on the particular power of this nutrient. The attention began in the 1980s when studies started to reveal that people who ate large amounts of tomatoes were far less likely to die from all forms of cancer compared with those who ate little or no tomatoes. Many other studies echoed the positive findings about the effect of eating tomatoes.
The Benefits of Lycopene Go Beyond Fighting Cancer
It’s not only cancer that the lycopene in tomatoes helps mitigate. Lycopene is an important part of the antioxidant defense network in the skin, and dietary lycopene by itself or in combination with other nutrients can raise the sun protection factor (SPF) of the skin. In other words, by eating tomatoes (in this case, cooked or processed tomatoes) you’re enhancing your skin’s ability to withstand the assault from the damaging rays of the sun. It can act as an internal sunblock!
Perhaps you’ve heard of the nun study in which Dr. David Snowdon of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky assessed 88 Roman Catholic nuns ranging in age from 77 to 98. The nuns with the highest blood concentrations of lycopene were the most able to care for themselves and complete everyday tasks. Overall, those with the highest levels of lycopene were 3.6 times better able to function in their everyday lives than those with the lowest levels. Most interestingly, no similar relationship between vigor and the presence of other antioxidants (such as vitamin E and beta-carotene) was found.
Lycopene is rare in foods, and tomatoes are one of only a few that are rich in this powerful antioxidant. Indeed, ketchup, tomato juice, and pizza sauce account for more than 80 percent of the total lycopene intake of Americans.
While lycopene has received a lot of attention recently, tomatoes are rich in a wide variety of nutrients, which seem to work synergistically to promote health and vitality. Low in calories, high in fiber, and high in potassium, tomatoes are not only a rich source of lycopene. They are also a source of beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and various polyphenols. They contain small amounts of B vitamins (thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, and niacin), as well as folate, vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, and zinc.
It’s the synergy of this multitude of nutrients, as well as the special power of lycopene, that boosts tomatoes to a spot in the all-star SuperFood pantheon.