Eating foods that are rich in nutrients and disease-fighting properties is more popular now than ever. Many people are incorporating foods into their daily diets that have been identified to contain nutrients with strong health benefits. Lycopene is an important nutrient that has been found to play a significant role in prostate cancer prevention and protection against heart disease.

Lycopene is not produced by the body, but must be obtained by eating foods that are rich in it. Found most abundantly in tomatoes and tomato-based sauces, lycopene is the nutrient that gives tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables their vibrant color.

Lycopene is a member of the cartenoid family (closely related to beta carotene) and is a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants are a group of vitamins, minerals and enzymes that may reduce damage to cells in the body and prevent diseases such as cancer, stroke and heart attacks.

The antioxidant properties of lycopene have been widely studied during the past decade. A study conducted by the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health examined the diets and health status of more than 50,000 men. Follow-up surveys were performed over a 12-year period. Nearly 2,500 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer during that time. The researchers found that the more lycopene the men ate in their diets the lower their risk of prostate cancer.

Lycopene also has been tested in scientific studies for its role in heart disease prevention. Scientific findings reveal that higher blood levels of lycopene concentrations are associated with a lower risk of heart disease in women.

Higher levels of lycopene are found in cooked tomato sauces than in raw tomatoes and other red-colored fruits and vegetables. When lycopene is taken in a pill form, it does not produce the same results as when it is ingested through cooked tomato products. (It has been suggested that the olive oil used in cooked tomato sauces allows the body to readily absorb lycopene.) Frequent tomato sauce consumption (two or more servings per week) is recommended for optimal health benefits and is consistent with current government recommendations for increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Additional Resources:

Sesso HD, Buring JE, Norkus EP, Gaziano JM. Plasma lycopene, other cartenoids, and retinol and the risk of cardiovascular disease in women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2004 Jan; 79(1):47-53

Giovannucci E. A review of epidemiologic studies of tomatoes, lycopene, and prostate cancer. Experimental Biology and Medicine 2002 Mar 6; 94(5):391-8

Miller EC, Giovannucci E, Erdman Jw Jr, Bahnson R, Schwartz SJ, Clinton SK.
Tomato products, lycopene and prostate cancer risk. Urologic Clinics of North America 2002 Feb; 29(1):83-93

Arab L, Steck S. Lycopene and cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000 Jun; 71 6 Suppl):1691S-5S

Clinton SK Lycopene: chemistry, biology, and implications for human health and disease. Nutrition Reviews 1998 Feb; 56(2 Pt 1):35-51.

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