Lycopene: A super supplement for Human Health
Lycopene (a natural organic compound that gives tomatoes their red colour) is an antioxidant which has gained increased attention for its health giving properties. Lycopene is one of the most powerful antioxidants found in foods. Antioxidants protect and repair cells and tissues against the damaging effects of free radicals which cause cell and tissue damage.
WHAT FOODS CONTAIN LYCOPENE?
While the human body does not produce lycopene, it is readily available in a variety of foods. Lycopene occurs naturally in many red-coloured foods such as tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit. Cooking and processing tomatoes stimulates and concentrates their lycopene content, making tomato pastes and sauces a rich source. Lycopene is fat-soluble, therefore, absorption can be enhanced by adding a little fat (such as olive oil) to meals when cooking with tomato products.
CHEMISTRY AND BIOAVAILABILITY:
Lycopene is a highly unsaturated straight chain hydrocarbon with a total of 13 double bonds, 11 of which are conjugated. This unique nature of the lycopene molecule makes it a very potent antioxidant. In vitro studies have shown lycopene to be twice as potent as β-carotene and ten times that of α-tocopherol in terms of its singlet oxygen quenching ability. Lycopene absorption has been shown to be significantly higher in the thermally processed tomato products compared to raw tomatoes, and the processed products were shown to contain higher levels of cis-isomers of lycopene. Lycopene was shown to be readily absorbed from tomato juice, tomato sauce and supplements. Serum lycopene levels were shown to increase significantly upon the consumption of tomato products and supplements with a concomitant decrease in the biomarkers of oxidation including the oxidation of serum lipids, LDL cholesterol, serum proteins and DNA.
LYCOPENE AND HUMEN HEALTH:
For men who want to protect themselves against prostate cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, and other health problems, lycopene, a natural carotenoid found in tomatoes, may be one of the best nutrients (Fig1). Women can also benefit from a higher intake of lycopene, since it also protects against macular degeneration and other complications. At the Barbara Ann Karamnos Center Institute in Detroit, Omer Kucuk reported that lycopene seems to shrink prostate tumors. For protection against prostate cancer and other health problems, the researchers recommended eating more fruits and vegetables, especially tomato-based products. Lycopene, which accounts for 50 percent of all carotenoids in human blood, is concentrated especially in the testes, adrenal gland, and prostate. Unfortunately, lycopene stores are diminished with increasing age. Lycopene intake is associated with a reduction in cancers of the prostate, pancreas, and perhaps the stomach. Edward Giovannucci of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School said there is evidence that the intake of tomatoes and tomato-based products may provide protection against prostate, lung, and stomach cancers. Lycopene may also provide protection against cancers of the pancreas, colon, rectum, esophagus, oral cavity, breast, and cervix. However, lycopene may not be the most important protective substance, since other beneficial compounds are present in tomatoes, and conceivably, complex interactions among multiple components may contribute to the anticancer properties in tomatoes. At any rate, the studies so far suggest that we can benefit by increasing our fruit and vegetable consumption. Researchers at Columbia University’s Harlem Hospital Center in New York reported that low levels of lycopene may increase a person’s susceptibility to lung cancer. Those who had the lowest levels of lycopene had a cancer risk about four times greater than smokers who had the highest intakes. It was also found that lung cancer patients who continued to smoke had the lowest lycopene levels of all the volunteers tested. Lycopene is apparently twice as powerful as beta-carotene. It is associated with a reduction in prostate and digestive tract cancers, and is apparently more resistant to the effects of alcohol and nicotine than beta carotene. Researchers at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, USDA, in Maryland reported that lycopene and lutein, found in fruits and vegetables as well as in human serum, have been shown to have strong antioxidant capabilities. In a German study, researchers found that lycopene blood levels were higher after volunteers had ingested heat-processed tomato products than after eating uncooked tomatoes. The heat seems to disrupt the cell structure of the tomato, making the lycopene more available. A study involving 1,379 European men found that those who consumed the most lycopene from foods were half as likely to suffer a heart attack as those who consumed little lycopene in their diets. Like beta-carotene, lycopene is fat soluble, and dietary fat is necessary for it to be absorbed in the intestines. But like a good antioxidant, lycopene provides protection against heart disease by preventing free radical damage to cells, genes, and molecules as it circulates through the blood.“The protective association with lycopene was not seen in smokers,” Kohlmeier said. “It did, however, interact with another major source of oxidative stress, stores of polyunsaturated fats, which are markers of consumption of high polyunsaturated fat diets. This suggests that lycopene may be operating under a tissue specific antioxidant mechanism.”Laboratory studies have shown that lycopene has the highest antioxidant capacity of the carotenoids, and it has the ability to quench singlet oxygen and trap peroxyl radicals. It has also been shown that when skin is subjected to ultraviolet light stress, more lycopene is destroyed than beta carotene, suggesting that lycopene may help mitigate oxidative damage in tissues. Singlet oxygen is a toxic by-product of many metabolic processes, and it is especially stimulated by smoking and sun exposure.
Peroxyl radicals are a constituent found in smog, among other things. The bioavailability of lycopene was greater from tomato paste than from fresh tomatoes, suggesting that cooking and chopping seems to increase bioavailability by breaking down plant cell walls. From the available evidence, it seems prudent to increase our consumption of fruits and vegetables, especially cooked tomato products. As insurance against possible deficiencies of lycopene, supplements are available in health food stores and other outlets.