Most people admire colorful fruits and veggies, but few know about the pigment that gives tomatoes their red color: lycopene. It has the potential to protect the prostate, prevent oxidative damage, enhance heart health, and more. Read on to discover the benefits of lycopene, best food sources, and safety precautions. What Is Lycopene?
Lycopene is the bright red pigment that gives color to a number of fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes are its main food source in Western societies and make up 85% of total lycopene intake [ 1 ].
Lycopene belongs to the large family of carotenoids , which includes over 600 pigments. The best-known ones are beta-carotene and lutein. We know carotenoids are healthy: a large body of research supports their benefits. Among all the carotenoids, lycopene carries several unique benefits [ 2 ]. Snapshot
Abundant in foods, especially tomatoes
Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
May help prevent prostate cancer
Supports heart and brain health
May protect the skin and eyes
High doses may cause digestive issues
Allergies are possible (but rare)
Most benefits lack solid clinical evidence
Some people don’t tolerate tomatoes
Antioxidants capture and neutralize free radicals, which can damage tissues and contribute to numerous diseases [ 3 ].
Lycopene is more than just another plant antioxidant. According to some cell studies, it might be among the most powerful ones [ 4 ].
In one study on sperm cells, it preserved sperm motility and protected from oxidative damage [ 5 ]. Best Lycopene Food Sources
Not all red produce contain lycopene, so you can’t spot a lycopene-rich food by color alone. Strawberries, for example, do not contain any. Here is a list of foods that pack significant amounts of lycopene [ 6 , 7 ]: Health Benefits of Lycopene
1) Heart Disease
Free radical damage plays a large role in heart disease. Antioxidants help in general, but lycopene has unique potential among them [ 8 ].
In an observational study of 1,379 European men, high blood levels of lycopene, but not other carotenoids, correlated with fewer heart attacks. In line with this, low lycopene blood levels were associated with heart disease in an observational study of 210 men [ 9 , 10 ].
Other observational trials suggest that higher lycopene intake may also be protective against atherosclerosis, a central risk factor for heart disease and stroke [ 11 , 12 ].
A meta-analysis of 12 studies concluded that the intake of 25 mg of lycopene per day effectively reduces two major heart disease risk factors: “bad” ( LDL ) cholesterol and high blood pressure [ 13 ].
In another meta-analysis of 21 trials, higher tomato intake was associated with lower LDL cholesterol and improved blood vessel function. It also confirmed the beneficial effects of lycopene intake on blood pressure [ 14 ].
To sum it up, lycopene may protect the heart by preventing atherosclerosis and reducing LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. 2) Prostate Cancer Prevention Lycopene tends to accumulate in the prostate and may play a role in prostate cancer prevention [ 15 ].In an observational study of nearly 50K men, those with higher lycopene intake were less likely to develop prostate cancer. The link was even stronger for a deadly type of prostate cancer. Those who ate more tomatoes had higher lycopene blood levels, which lowered their prostate cancer risk. And once again, other carotenoids had no effect [ 16 , 17 ].A large analysis of 17 studies concluded that increased tomato consumption is linked to 15-20% lower rates of prostate cancer. The connection between lycopene intake and cancer rates was weaker but still significant [ 18 ].The largest meta-analysis of 26 studies and over 560,000 participants confirmed an inverse association between lycopene intake and blood levels and prostate cancer [ 19 ].Some trials found no connection, but when the authors of the above analysis excluded low-quality clinical trials, the connection was even stronger [ 19 , 20 , 21 ].Higher intake of tomatoes and lycopene may help prevent prostate cancer, but further studies are needed to solidify this connection. No valid clinical evidence supports the use of lycopene for any of the conditions in this section. Below is a summary of up-to-date animal studies, cell-based research, or low-quality clinical trials which should spark further investigation. However, you shouldn’t interpret them as supportive of any health benefit. 3) Breast Cancer Prevention Eating tomatoes protected against digestive cancers (stomach, colon, and throat) in an observational study of almost 6,000 people [ 22 ].In another study of over 7,000 women, high blood levels of lycopene were associated with lower rates of breast cancer. Other carotenoids like alpha- and beta-carotene lacked this benefit [ 23 ].On the other hand, some observational studies failed to make a connection between lycopene intake/blood levels and breast cancer [ 24 , 25 ].Due to conflicting research results, more studies are needed to evaluate the potential role of lycopene in breast cancer prevention. 4) Brain Health and Cognition Dietary lycopene combined with other herbs such as ginkgo improved cognition in a study of 622 elderly people. But ginkgo itself enhances cognition, making lycopene’s contribution unclear [ 26 ].Another study paints a clearer picture: of 193 healthy older people, those with higher blood levels of lycopene had better cognitive function [ 27 ].Lycopene prevented early cognitive decline in rats with diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. In both cases, it worked by reducing oxidative damage in the brain [ 28 , 29 ].In another rat study, lycopene improved depressive behavior by lowering brain inflammation. It reduced injury to the hippocampus, the brain’s hub for memory and emotions [ 30 ].Lycopene supports brain health and may enhance cognition, but clinical studies have yet to confirm this benefit. 5) Sunburn Protection In a study of 22 people, eating 40 g tomato of paste (or roughly ~12 mg lycopene) daily for 10 weeks reduced sunburn and skin damage by 40% [ 31 ].According to another research group, tomato juice lowers sunburns by almost […]