Tomatoes, a Good Source of Lycopene

Pat yourself on the back the next time you open a jar of red spaghetti sauce. You might just be serving up a healthier future for yourself and your family.

Tomatoes and tomato-based products, such as marinara sauce, stewed tomatoes, and pizza sauce, are both tasty and nutritious. They're relatively low in fat and calories and high in nutrients, including potassium and vitamins A and C.

There is evidence that indicates spaghetti sauce and other tomato products may offer protection against certain cancers and other degenerative conditions.

We like lycopene

Scientists believe one of the beneficial ingredients in tomatoes is lycopene, which also gives tomatoes their deep-red color. Lycopene is an antioxidant that's much more powerful than its relative, beta carotene.

Like other antioxidants, lycopene protects by inhibiting the action of free radicals--destructive substances that form in the body because of the wear and tear of aging and other stressors, such as pollution, smoking, and ultraviolet rays. By binding itself onto free radicals, lycopene helps keep them from causing cell damage that could result in cancer and other diseases.

Lycopene is also present in other foods, including red grapefruit, guava, apricots, watermelon, and papaya.

The evidence

According to the American Cancer Society, observational studies have shown that risks for some types of cancer are lower in populations with higher lycopene blood levels. The increased lycopene levels is mainly because of increased tomato consumption. The evidence is strongest for a protective effect against cancers of the lung, stomach, and prostate. Lycopene or tomato consumption may also help protect against cancers of the cervix, breast, mouth, pancreas, esophagus, and colon. Even though not all studies have resulted in the same conclusion and research continues, the evidence is strong that diets high in fruits and vegetables, tomatoes included, help prevent cancer. The protective effect of plant-based diets cannot be explained by just one nutrient or part of the diet. Instead, the hundreds of beneficial nutrients and compounds found in fruits and vegetables work together to benefit you. So, enjoy your tomatoes and not just a lycopene supplement. 

Taste the benefits

Surprisingly, tomatoes that have been crushed and cooked appear to be a better source of lycopene than those eaten raw. Researchers suspect that mashing and cooking releases more of the lycopene from the tomato, so it's free to be absorbed by the body.

That's why spaghetti sauce, pizza, and other foods made from processed tomato products are a better source than raw tomatoes. Tomato juice is effective, too, as long as it is packaged in bottles or cans.

Like other nutrients in the carotenoid family, lycopene dissolves in fat. This means that your body will absorb it better when you accompany your tomato dishes with a little vegetable or olive oil.

Many commercial spaghetti sauces and pizza sauces already contain small amounts of oil. If you cook with an oil-free tomato product, you can get much the same benefit by serving a salad with fresh vinegar and olive oil dressing. 

Boosting your consumption

Here are some ways you can enjoy more tomato products in your diet:

  • Tomato toddy. For a quick soup or flavorful autumn drink, heat up canned tomato juice and pour it into a bowl or cup. Float a thin slice of lemon on the surface and sprinkle a few flakes of basil on top.

  • Vegetarian chili. Make a fast, savory chili by mixing a can of whole tomatoes with a can of low-fat bean soup. Stir in diced, fresh carrots, onions and a handful or two of raisins. Season to taste with cumin and a shake of powdered cinnamon.

  • Tomato burger. Mix a small can of tomato sauce into meatloaf, along with the other ingredients.

  • Pizza light. Pour on the sauce, go easy on the cheese, and add plenty of veggies.

  • Pour it on. Use ketchup on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise.

  • Bottled wonder. Keep a can or bottle of tomato juice at your desk to drink throughout the day.

  • Eat like an Italian. Get in the habit of serving a side of pasta with red sauce at dinner.