Lycopene is a member of the carotenoid family, a group of over 600 plant compounds that provide the bright yellows, oranges and reds of many of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. Lycopene is found in particularly significant quantities in tomatoes and is responsible for their vibrant red colour.
How does lycopene benefit our health? Many of the beneficial effects that lycopene has in the body are thought to be associated with its ability to act as a potent antioxidant. Antioxidant compounds help to protect the cells in the body from damage by free radicals. Free radicals are produced as a result of normal bodily processes as well as exposure to stress, pollution and environmental toxins.
They are thought to be involved in the development and progression of serious and chronic disorders such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers as well as degenerative conditions associated with the process of ageing. Lycopene may therefore confirm any health benefits and help to prevent or slow down many of these conditions.
Epidemiological studies have discovered that high levels of lycopene in the blood are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in both women and men. Specifically, a 2012 Finnish study in middle-aged men, found that those in the quartile with the highest blood lycopene levels were more than 50 per cent less likely to suffer a stroke. Lycopene may also have beneficial effects on cholesterol levels. A trial in healthy volunteers found that the consumption of a dietary lycopene supplement produced a signifi cant 14 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol (known as ‘bad’ cholesterol) levels.
Lycopene is not manufactured by the body and must therefore be acquired from eating foods that contain lycopene. Some surveys indicate that on average, 85 percent of lycopene consumed in the dietcomes from tomatoes or tomato-based products such as tomato paste, pizza sauce, tomato soup. Lycopene is more easily absorbed by the body when it has been subjected to heat and therefore processed tomato products such as pastes and tinned tomatoes may be more effective at supplying lycopene than raw tomatoes.
Lycopene is also very unstable so when exposed to air it oxidises easily, reducing its health benefits substantially. Researchers, however, have found a way to extract the lycopene from tomatoes with minimal exposure to oxygen. They’ve also discovered that combining whey protein molecules with lycopene dramatically improves its bioavailability – this combination is the subject of a patent. Research showing the effect of this patented combination was presented to heart specialists at a meeting of the British Cardiovascular Society.
“There is now enough evidence to indicate that if entire populations increased their blood serum lycopene levels to those of the highest 25 per cent of the population, levels of heart disease and stroke would fall dramatically,”