When it comes to eating healthy, you’ve probably heard the old advice about eating a variety of fruits and veggies- “Eat the rainbow”, they say! Eating colorful food has unique health benefits.
Lycopene is one such natural food pigment found in many fruits and vegetables. It is a bright red carotenoid pigment that accounts for the brilliant crimson color of tomatoes, the luscious pink color of guavas, pink grapefruit, watermelon, and other such foods.
This powerful phytonutrient has been the subject of an extensive body of literature. According to an article published by the NCBI-NIH (National Center for Biotechnology Information)(1), researchers have been collecting a cornucopia of data on ‘Lycopene’ over the last 70 years.
This huge interest can be attributed to Lycopene’s amazing array of health benefits. Lycopene is shown to exhibit strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, anti-mutagenic and cardioprotective properties. In this article, we look at some of the health benefits of lycopene and its top food sources.
Did You Know!
Lycopene is absorbed more efficiently by the body when fruits and vegetables are processed into juice, paste, sauce or ketchup.
Health Benefits of Lycopene
1. Antioxidant Properties
Lycopene is a natural antioxidant and can protect the body from damage caused by compounds called free radicals. When free radicals overwhelm the body’s ability to regulate them, it induces a condition known as oxidative stress.
Uncontrolled oxidative stress is linked to a number of chronic diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. Lycopene can, however, keep free radical activity in control and offer effective protection against these health conditions and diseases.
2. Lowers blood pressure
Epidemiological studies(2) suggest that lycopene could help to lower blood pressure. People with high blood pressure, who consumed more than 12 milligrams of lycopene per day were found to show decreased levels of blood pressure.
3. Prevent certain types of cancer
Although research in this area has been rather inconsistent, a number of observational studies(3) have indicated that a diet rich in lycopene could be conducive to preventing certain types of cancers, including prostate, lung and breast cancer. This phytonutrient’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and chemo-preventive properties is what helps to slow down the progression of cancer.
4. Prevent Heart Risks
Available research also suggests that lycopene-rich foods could lower the risk of heart disease. Lycopene is thought to have a cholesterol synthesis-inhibiting effect and could enhance the degradation of “Bad” cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoproteins).
5. Sun protection
The consumption of lycopene along with other nutrients such as Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and beta-carotene is also linked to increased skin protection from the sun’s damaging rays. In a 12-week study that was conducted, it was found that participants who were exposed to harmful UV rays after consuming 16 mg of lycopene from tomato paste, had less severe reactions to UV exposure. Lycopene’s protection against UV damage is, however, limited and it shouldn’t be considered a natural replacement for sunscreen.
6. Treating Health Conditions
A lot of research has also been devoted to understanding the possible preventive function of lycopene in age-related eye diseases, inflammation, seizures, Alzheimer’s disease, mouth sores and gum disease, Type 2 Diabetes, bone resorption, and bone loss. Although some of the results are promising, the evidence is still inconclusive as most foods containing lycopene are significant sources of other nutrients as well.
Top Lycopene Foods
Most pink and red-colored fruits and vegetables are good sources of lycopene. Here are some foods that are high in lycopene:
1. Tomatoes and tomato-based products
Lycopene is abundant in tomatoes and tomato-based products such as ketchup, salsa, sauces, and soups. According to the tomato nutrition facts provided by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC)(4), one cup of chopped red tomatoes contains 4.63 milligrams of lycopene while 1 cup of canned tomato puree contains 54.4 milligrams of lycopene.
Watermelon is another rich source of lycopene. One cup of watermelon contains around 6.89 milligrams of lycopene.
Papaya is another fruit that is rich in the natural coloring carotenoid compound, lycopene. Research shows that the body may absorb lycopene better from papayas than most other lycopene-rich fruits and vegetables. One cup of papaya cubes contains around 2.65 milligrams of lycopene.
5. Sun-dried Tomatoes
Sun-dried tomatoes are not just a concentrated source of nutrients such as Potassium, Magnesium, Vitamin C, Iron, and Thiamin, etc., it is also power-packed with lycopene. One cup of sun-dried tomatoes contains 24.8 milligrams of lycopene.
Certain non-red foods such as asparagus, dried parsley, and basil also contain lycopene. Asparagus contains about 30 μg of lycopene per 100 grams serving, while dried parsley and basil contain about 3.5 to 7.0 μg/g of lycopene.
There is no official recommended level of intake for lycopene. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), however, 0.5 milligrams of lycopene per kilogram body weight is considered an acceptable daily intake from all sources.
1. Is Lycopene an Antioxidant?
Yes, lycopene is an antioxidant. Most of the beneficial properties of lycopene are primarily attributed to its antioxidant properties.
2. Is Too Much Lycopene Bad for You?
Lycopene is generally considered very safe to eat and the risk of consuming too much lycopene from foods is rather low. Although, a common side effect that occurs from consuming too much lycopene is hyperpigmentation of the skin, in which the person’s skin tone appears orange or yellow.