Better red than dead: The lycopene in tomatoes can fight the free radicals which cause life threatening diseases
Most men will develop prostate problems and potentially cancer if they live long enough. So there was considerable excitement a few years ago when it was revealed that lycopene, the powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, could both help prevent and fight prostate cancer.
Now, scientists who presented their findings at an Israeli conference recently, say the beneficial effects of the tomato may go a lot further, helping to fight ageing with an anti-inflammatory effect which could ease and potentially prevent a number of chronic diseases.
Scientists have demonstrated that lycopene can mop up free radicals which cause cell damage. The antioxidant effect — which needs to be combined with other bioflavonoids in tomatoes in order to be most effective — has also been shown to have a positive effect in relation to breast, lung and stomach cancer, hypertension, atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
But according to new research carried out by Professor Rachel Levy at Ben-Gurion University, lycopene can also help combat toxins and so reduce inflammation which can contribute to tissue damage and accelerate disease.
Inflammation contributes to a number of chronic conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, myocardial infraction and Alzheimer’s. “Lycopene has an important role to play in anti-inflammatory reaction,” says Levy. The studies were initially carried out in mice and then validated in human white blood cells; human intervention trials are now under way, with the results due in approximately six months.
All of which adds weight to the growing body of evidence of the health giving properties of the humble tomato. Mediterranean men have been benefiting from this for years. Studies have shown that they tend to have a lower prostate cancer rate, a fact that is partly believed to be down to a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, garlic, olive oil, fish and tomatoes.
“Eighty per cent of 80-year-olds will show some sign of prostate cancer,” said Professor Yoav Sharoni of Ben-Gurion University at the conference, “But increasing the amount of lycopene in the diet to 30mg a day, reduces PSA levels by 17.5 per cent in three weeks for men with prostate cancer, who need to undergo a prostatectomy.”
Adding more tomato based products to your diet should not be too onerous. Scientists at the conference suggested products including tomato ketchup, pasta sauces, puree, baked beans, tomato juice and even Bloody Marys. Tinned tomatoes are also good. However tomato juice drunk alone was found to be less beneficial because the cooking process helps to release lycopene from the cell walls of the tomato, and oil — such as olive oil — is generally needed to help absorption.
In order to get the full health benefits of lycopene in the diet, scientists recommend the equivalent of five bright red tomatoes a day. Lycopene gives tomatoes their red colour and the redder they are the more lycopene they contain. This is equal to eight pizza slices or 32 slices of tomatoes. Supplements made from tomatoes like Lyc-O-mato, which contains the whole goodness of the tomato — may also be taken. One capsule is equal to about five tomatoes.
If your doctor has told you that your blood pressure is too high, tomatoes may also help. The results of Dr Arnon Aharon’s new research conducted at the Negev University revealed that lycopene can considerably lower blood pressure. Thirty-one male and female volunteers with mild hypertension were given tomato extract supplements for eight weeks and then a placebo for four weeks. Volunteers’ blood pressure fell but when they stopped taking lycopene their blood pressure increased again.
The Negev University research also revealed that tomatoes help to boost cardiovascular health and protect against high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (furring of arteries), which can result in heart attacks and strokes.
Aharon says tomatoes may also be useful in preventing “accumulation of plaque in the arteries” as “antioxidants have a significant anti-inflammatory role in the body”.
For those worried about their declining memories, another recent study of 2,100 New York City residents, aged 65 upwards, carried out by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City reported encouraging results.
It was found that those who ate a healthy diet high in fruit, vegetables — especially broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes — fish, poultry and nuts had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Samuel Gandy, Mount Sinai’s professor of Alzheimer’s Disease Research says: “Everything that increases the risk for heart disease — high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, uncontrolled diabetes — also increases the risk for Alzheimer’s.”