Lycopene: health effects and food sources

Lycopene is a plant dye with strong antioxidant properties. It gives tomatoes, melons and grapefruits their characteristic red to orange colour.
Lycopene has many beneficial health effects. Among other things, it improves heart health, protects against sunburn and is also used to prevent certain types of cancer.

In this article, we’ll look at the effects of lycopene and the best food sources of it.

Strong antioxidant properties

Lycopene is an antioxidant from the carotenoid group. Antioxidants are substances that protect our bodies from molecules called free radicals.

When the amount of free radicals exceeds the amount of antioxidants in the body, this leads to the development of so-called oxidative stress, which is associated with the development of many chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Research suggests that the antioxidant effects of lycopene help maintain the balance between antioxidants and free radicals in the body, protecting us from some of the above chronic diseases.

In addition, laboratory and animal studies suggest that lycopene protects the body from the effects of harmful substances such as pesticides, herbicides, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and some types of fungi

May protect against some cancers

The powerful antioxidant effects of lycopene may be useful in preventing or slowing the progression of some cancers.

For example, laboratory studies suggest that lycopene may slow the growth of cancer cells in breast and prostate cancer.

In addition, animal studies show that lycopene may inhibit the growth of cancer cells in the kidneys.

In humans, observational studies have been conducted suggesting an association between carotenoid consumption (including lycopene) and lung and prostate cancer. High intakes of carotenoids (including lycopene) appear to reduce the risk of lung and prostate cancer by 32-50%.

One study that spanned 23 years examined in detail the relationship between lycopene and prostate cancer in more than 46,000 men.

Men who ate at least 2 servings of lycopene-rich tomato sauce each week had a 30% lower risk of prostate cancer than those who ate less than one serving of the same sauce per month.

However, a recent analysis of 26 studies no longer confirmed such great results. The researchers found that men with a high lycopene intake were only 9% less likely to get prostate cancer. In terms of potential benefit, a daily lycopene intake of 9-21 mg is best.

May improve heart health

Lycopene may also reduce the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease.

This is because it reduces risk factors for heart and blood vessel disease. Specifically, it can mitigate free radical damage to the body, lowering total and “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood and, in turn, increasing “good” HDL cholesterol.

High blood levels of lycopene also help prolong the lives of people with metabolic syndrome, a set of symptoms that lead to cardiovascular disease (abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes).

In one study that lasted ten years, experts followed people with metabolic syndrome and found that those who had the highest blood levels of lycopene had up to a 39% lower risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease.

Another study, which also lasted 10 years, found that a diet high in lycopene reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease by 17-26%. And a recent analysis of several studies found that high blood levels of lycopene can reduce the risk of stroke by up to 31%.

The protective effects of lycopene are particularly well established in people with low blood levels of antioxidants or, conversely, high levels of oxidative stress. These persons include, among others, the elderly, smokers, diabetics and also people with cardiovascular disease.

Can protect from sunlight

Some studies suggest that lycopene may protect against the harmful effects of sunlight.

In one small study that lasted 12 weeks, participants were exposed to ultraviolet radiation before and after consuming lycopene from tomato paste. A control group took a placebo instead of lycopene. Participants who took lycopene showed less severe skin reactions to ultraviolet radiation than those who ate placebo instead of tomato paste.

In another study, which also lasted 12 weeks, participants took 8 to 16 mg of lycopene daily, either in the form of food or supplements. Lycopene at these doses has been shown to reduce skin redness after UV exposure by 40 – 50%.

This study also showed that dietary supplements containing a mixture of lycopene with other carotenoids were more effective in protecting against UV radiation than dietary supplements containing lycopene alone.

In any case, note that the UV protection provided by lycopene is by no means sufficient and is not a substitute for the use of a good quality sunscreen with a high SPF.

Other positive health effects of lycopene

Some studies suggest that lycopene may have a number of other beneficial health effects, such as:

Helps improve eye health: lycopene may slow or prevent eye diseases such as cataracts or age-related macular degeneration, which are among the most common causes of blindness in the elderly.

Pain relief: Some studies suggest that lycopene may relieve the symptoms of neuropathic pain, a type of pain caused by damage to nerves and surrounding tissues.

Protects the brain: Thanks to its antioxidant properties, lycopene may protect against epileptic seizures and memory loss associated with age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Strengthens bones: The antioxidant effects of lycopene slow the aging of bone cells, strengthen bone architecture and help keep bones healthy and strong.

However, it must be said that most of the above positive effects of lycopene have only been verified by laboratory and animal studies. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct human studies first before we can draw any concrete conclusions and confirm the above beneficial health effects of lycopene.

The best food sources of lycopene

Virtually all red or deep pink foods contain lycopene.

However, tomatoes are the richest source of lycopene, and the riper the tomato, the more lycopene it contains. But lycopene can also be found in many other foods.

Here’s a list of foods rich in lycopene (lycopene content is given per 100 grams of the food):

  • Dried tomatoes: 45.9 mg
  • Tomato puree: 21.8 mg
  • Kava: 5.2 mg
  • Watermelon: 4.5 mg
  • Fresh tomatoes: 3.0 mg
  • Tomato compote (canned tomatoes): 2.7 mg
  • Papaya: 1.8 mg
  • Pink grapefruit: 1.1 mg
  • Cooked sweet red peppers: 0.5 mg

The recommended daily intake of lycopene is not officially set, however, studies conducted suggest that best results are achieved with a daily intake of 8 – 21 mg.

Risks and side effects of lycopene

The intake of lycopene from natural foods is considered safe.

However, in rare cases, extreme overconsumption of lycopene can lead to orange discoloration of the skin, which is technically called lycopenoderma.

If you take lycopene exclusively from natural foods and do not overdo it, you do not have to worry about lycopenoderma. In addition, if you overdo it and your skin turns orange, you can just eliminate foods with lycopene from your diet for a few days and everything will return to normal.

In one study, a man was given 2 liters of tomato juice to drink daily for several years. After he completely eliminated foods with lycopene from his diet for a few days, his skin discoloration disappeared and he had no other problems.

Dietary supplements with lycopene are unsuitable for pregnant women and for people taking certain types of medication (especially blood thinners and high blood pressure medication).