Lycopene: How This Plant Pigment May Benefit Your Health

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fresh tomatoes with lycopene

Story at-a-glance -

  • Lycopene is a pigment belonging to the carotenoid family, and is known for producing the red color mainly found in tomatoes
  • In one study, increased intake of lycopene was linked to reduced levels of insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I), a marker associated with a higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer

Lycopene is a pigment belonging to the carotenoid family, and is known for producing the red color mainly found in tomatoes.1 You may have come across tomato-based products that advertise lycopene as a nutrient that may benefit your health in various ways. But is there any truth to these claims? According to published research, there may be.

The Annual Review of Food Science and Technology states that lycopene has strong antioxidant capabilities that may help eliminate reactive oxygen species (ROS), thus reducing the risk of free radicals destroying your health with autoimmune diseases such as cancer, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Other studies also indicate that lycopene may help treat diseases such as asthma and gingivitis.2,3

With these potential benefits in mind, no doubt you would want to increase your intake of lycopene. But what are the best sources of this beneficial pigment? If you're looking to expand your palate beyond tomatoes, there are plenty of choices for you.

The Best Food Sources of Lycopene

You may have heard time and again that tomatoes are one of the best sources of lycopene, and this statement is actually quite true. According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 80 percent of lycopene consumed by the average American comes from tomato products such as ketchup, tomato juice and pizza sauce.4

Aside from these products being processed foods that come with things that aren't good for you, there are other foods that contain lycopene. The table below highlights other beneficial sources of lycopene:5

Food Micrograms of Lycopene Per Cup
Guava (raw) 8,587
Cherry tomatoes (raw) 3,834
Watermelon 6,979
Papaya 2,651
Grapefruit (pink and red) 3,264
Red Peppers 513
Asparagus (canned) 58
Red/Purple Cabbage 18
Mango 5
Carrots 1

Lycopene is a fat-soluble nutrient, which means you need to consume it with another food rich in healthy fats to increase absorption. Examples include making homemade tomato sauce containing coconut oil and grass fed beef. Always remember this tip to maximize your lycopene intake. However, lycopene supplements exist as well, which may help if you are allergic to any of the foods mentioned.

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Studies Indicate Lycopene May Benefit Your Heart, Protect Against Cancer and More

Lycopene has been studied extensively, and findings show that this nutrient possibly has potential against various forms of cancer, most notably prostate, lung and stomach cancers. Furthermore, research has noted that lycopene may help protect against other types of cancer in the following areas:6

  • Pancreas
  • Colon and rectum
  • Esophagus
  • Mouth
  • Breast
  • Cervix

Various studies support the benefits of lycopene against cancer. In one example published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, 4,770 male participants examined for benign prostatic hyperplasia had a reduced risk of developing the disease by consuming a healthy diet supplemented with lycopene.7 In another study, out of 47,365 male participants interviewed from 1986 to 1998, only 2,481 developed prostate cancer. Researchers generally attribute the results to the increased lycopene intake.8

Certain studies strongly suggest that lycopene may help against breast cancer as well. In a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, lycopene consumption has been linked to reduced levels of 8-OHdG, an oxidative stress marker related to the aforementioned disease.9

In another study, increased intake of lycopene is linked to reduced levels of insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I), a marker associated with a higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer.10 Another area where lycopene shows promise is cardiovascular disease, one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Multiple studies have shown that increasing lycopene levels in the blood may benefit your heart health significantly.

For example, in a paper published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers studied 39,876 middle-aged and older women for a period of seven years. They noted that only 719 of the participants developed cardiovascular disease, suggesting the reduced lycopene intake as a contributing factor.11

Aside from helping protect against cancer and promoting your cardiovascular health, lycopene may have other uses. In one study, researchers decided to find out how lycopene may help treat sunburn. Participants were asked to consume 16 milligrams of lycopene from tomato paste with olive oil daily for 10 weeks.

By the end of the experiment, they concluded that the tomato paste/lycopene method was able to reduce ultraviolet-induced sunburn.12 Other studies have found that lycopene may reduce your risk of developing:

  • Gingivitis13
  • Psychiatric disorders14
  • Asthma15
  • Fractures16

Side Effects of Lycopene Are Minor, but Pregnant Women Need To Be Careful

In general, food sources of lycopene are well-tolerated by the human body. However, you may experience minor side effects, especially if your main source comes from tomatoes. There's a chance you may develop stomach problems such as diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps and gas when you eat too much. Other potential problems that may arise include:17

  • Allergic reactions or intolerance — If you develop any allergies due to eating large amounts of tomato-based dishes or other high-lycopene foods, try reducing your intake.
  • Lycopendodermia — This is a condition that makes your skin develop a reddish color. It usually occurs when you consume excessive amounts of lycopene-rich foods.
  • Low blood pressure — Increasing your lycopene intake can lower your blood pressure. If you're currently taking any form of drugs to maintain low blood pressure, consult with a doctor first to prevent complications from occurring.

Similar to real foods, lycopene supplements are generally safe to take. However, there's still a chance you may develop minor issues such as stomach problems. Skin discoloration and allergic reactions may appear as well.18

On the other hand, I strongly discourage pregnant women from taking lycopene supplements. According to EMedicineHealth, a study found that taking 2 milligrams of LycoRed (a specific lycopene product) between 12 and 20 weeks of pregnancy until delivery increased the rate of premature births.19 Instead, I recommend pregnant and breast-feeding women to obtain lycopene from food.

Lycopene Supplements May Help, but Natural Sources Are Better

Multiple studies have pointed out that lycopene has a strong potential for protecting against cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as other illnesses. If you want to consume more of this powerful carotenoid, I recommend that you get it from natural food sources like tomatoes before relying on a supplement. However, please note that tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, and therefore contain lectins, which can have damaging effects on your health.

If you do wish to get lycopene from tomatoes, I suggest cooking them first, as the heat increases the levels of this nutrient, thereby increasing the amount your body can absorb. Research has shown that when tomatoes are heated to just over 190 degrees Fahrenheit for two minutes, 15 minutes and 30 minutes:20

  • Beneficial trans-lycopene content increased by 54 percent, 171 percent and 164 percent respectively
  • Levels of cis-lycopene (a form easily absorbed by your body) rose by 6 percent, 17 percent and 35 percent respectively
  • Overall antioxidant levels increased by 28 percent, 34 percent and 62 percent respectively

Dr. Steven Gundry, author of the book "The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in 'Healthy' Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain," also recommends using a pressure cooker to neutralize the lectins in tomatoes. Do not use slow cookers, as they will actually increase lectin content due to the low cooking temperature.

Lastly, I strongly encourage you to purchase your tomatoes (and other lycopene-rich foods for that matter) from organic farmers not only to avoid ingesting dangerous chemicals, but also so you can get more nutrients. In a study published by PLOS One, researchers noted that tomatoes grown using organic standards resulted in elevated phenols compared to those grown using conventional farming methods.21

If you do choose to take a supplement, make sure the product uses organic lycopene and comes from a reputable manufacturer.

Frequently Asked Questions About Lycopene

Q: What does lycopene do?

A: Lycopene is a pigment belonging to the carotenoid family. It is the source of the red color of tomatoes, and can be found in other fruits and vegetables as well.22

Q: What is lycopene good for?

A: Research has found that lycopene may help protect against various forms of cancer, as well as help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.23