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November 18, 2011 | 2 minute read

You Say Tomato, Let’s Talk Lycopene

As the days have shortened and the nights have grown crisp, the leaves on the trees outside AICR’s Washington, DC, headquarters have begun to show their true colors. Some of these colors are derived from lycopene, a dietary compound that plays a role in preventing cancer.

Lycopene is one of the more well-studied compounds for cancer prevention. It belongs to a class of compounds known as carotenoids and is one of the compounds responsible for leaves’ brilliant reds, oranges, and yellow hues.  These fat-soluble pigments are present in many foods, as well, and are what make tomatoes red, pumpkins orange, and squashes yellow.

AICR’s expert report and its continuous updates have found that lycopene reduces the risk of prostate cancer.  Along with tomatoes and tomato products, lycopene is also found in other red fruits such as watermelon and red guavas.  Interestingly, our bodies can absorb more lycopene from cooked tomato products like spaghetti sauce, ketchup, or salsa because heat changes the configuration of lycopene’s molecules, making it more available.

At AICR’s Research Conference on November 3-4, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center presented a small study looking at how lycopene-rich tomato juice may help patients undergoing radiation therapy. The study was preliminary, only including 17 people, and the researchers point out far more research is needed.

You can read more about the study here.

One more interesting note about lycopene—it seems to like company. Its fat-soluble nature means it is best absorbed in the presence of fat.  Healthier options like the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil or nuts are good accompaniments to lycopene.

So serve up a hot bowl of tomato soup or top some whole grain bread with a flavorful tomato-walnut pesto and enjoy the health benefits of this ruby-red phytochemical.

To read more about tomatoes and other foods that contain lycopene, visit the new AICR’s Foods That Fight Cancer resource.

Teresa Johnson is a dietetics intern with a longtime interest in phytochemicals and their role in the prevention of chronic disease.

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