Lycopene, a plant nutrient with powerful antioxidant properties, has been linked to health benefits including preventing cancer, improving heart health, keeping eyesight sharp, and slashing overall disease risk. It’s also the reason for the vibrant pink and red colors of certain fruits—like watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, and, of course, tomatoes. If you’ve ever wondered why tomato sauce leaves such stubborn stains on your cookware, well, you have lycopene to thank—it’s not water-soluble.
Here’s what you need to know about this impressive phytonutrient and its amazing benefits. Plus, we included seven of our favorite lycopene foods (tomatoes aren’t your only option)!
What Is Lycopene?
As we mentioned above, lycopene is a phytonutrient. But what, precisely, is a phytonutrient? Chances are you’ve come across that word, but can you really define it? Let us help you out: in simple terms, phytonutrients are chemicals (also called phytochemicals) produced by plants that can provide significant benefits to the humans who consume them.
The plants produce phytonutrients in order to protect themselves from pests, UV damage, and other threats. It turns out, they can also help protect us. Phytonutrients contain antioxidants that help quell inflammation, boost immunity, enhance intercellular communication, mitigate the harm done by exposure to toxins, flush carcinogens from your system, and more.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), adding plenty of phytonutrient-rich foods to your diet can be an “effective strategy” for decreasing your risk of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic conditions linked to inflammation.
There are over 25,000 different kinds of phytonutrients, which are organized into different classes and then subdivided into groups within those classes. Scientists have found that six groups of phytonutrients have particularly beneficial effects on human health. One of those six, carotenoids, is the group that lycopene belongs to, and of the more than 600 types of carotenoids, lycopene ranks as one of the most important.
Quick Facts About Carotenoids
Each of the 600 different carotenoids, which provide yellow, orange, and red pigmentation to plants, has its own distinct set of benefits. According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, carotenoids can increase antioxidant activity, enhance eye health, and more.
These foods all contain rich stores of carotenoids:
- Sweet potatoes
- Bell peppers
In order to be fully absorbed, carotenoids should be consumed with a fat. The carotenoids you’re most likely to encounter if you eat a Western diet are alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene.
What You Should Know About Lycopene
Lycopene, like all carotenoids, is fat-soluble (remember, that’s why it leaves such prominent stains). In order to absorb all the lycopene a food contains, it’s best to pair it with a fat, like a few slices of avocado, a drizzle of olive oil, or a handful of almonds. Tomatoes contain the highest concentration of lycopene, but it can be found in several other popular fruits and vegetables too.
According to a study conducted by scientists at Ohio State University, the shape of lycopene molecules also impacts how completely your body absorbs them. In their natural state, lycopene molecules have a molecularly linear formation—they’re like straight lines. But the scientists found that nearly all the lycopene molecules present in the bloodstreams of test subjects were bent. The scientists believe the most likely explanation for this is that the human body prefers to absorb bent lycopene molecules.
Fortunately, the process of bending lycopene molecules doesn’t require the level of scientific expertise you might assume. Chances are, you’ve done it before. Cooking lycopene-rich foods causes their molecules to bend. So, any time you make a tomato sauce, you’re giving your body a hearty serving of its favorite kind of lycopene molecules. And unlike other types of phytonutrients, heating carotenoids like lycopene doesn’t decrease their antioxidant properties.
The Top 5 Benefits of Lycopene
Lycopene is one of the most potent antioxidants out there. Antioxidants help prevent molecules called free radicals from eroding your health and well-being.
An overview of the link between antioxidants and disease prevention explains that if the number of free radicals in your body exceeds the number of antioxidants, oxidative stress can occur. And, according to the overview, prolonged oxidative stress increases your risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Lycopene specifically has been shown to effectively keep free radical populations at a healthy level. A 2014 article published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nutrients deemed carotenoids to be “exceptionally efficient physical and chemical quenchers” of free radicals. The researchers concluded that consuming foods rich in carotenoids such as lycopene, “may significantly reduce the risk of some chronic diseases.”
Plus, studies done with rats have shown that lycopene can protect against oxidative damage from two incredibly common kinds of pesticides and herbicides: dichlorvos and atrazine. Frequently used to protect produce from insects, these substances are very difficult to entirely avoid, though they’re known to have toxic effects on the human body. According to a 2016 study published in Human & Experimental Toxicology, a peer-reviewed journal, lycopene can protect the liver from damage done by dichlorvos. And a separate 2016 study, published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research, found that lycopene can prevent and even reverse harmful changes to the adrenal cortex, an area of the brain that controls your stress response, caused by atrazine.
And according to experiments done with test tubes, the antioxidant properties of lycopene can also be used to combat a kind of fungus called Candida albicans that can cause unpleasant infections.
Here are five of the top lycopene protective effects for human health.
Benefit #1: Cancer Prevention
Thanks to its formidable antioxidant properties, lycopene can help to prevent, as well as to slow the progression of, several different kinds of cancer.
A 2015 study revealed that lycopene can prevent the growth of tumors in rats predisposed to develop renal cell carcinoma, which causes between 80% and 85% of all malignant kidney tumors. The researchers concluded that lycopene may play a role in preventing renal cell carcinoma.
Observational studies indicate that an increased consumption of carotenoids, including lycopene, can also substantially reduce your risk of lung cancer. A study done by researchers from the Unit of Environmental Cancer Epidemiology at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, found that a high consumption of carotenoid-rich vegetables like tomatoes and carrots can lower a person’s risk of developing lung cancer by at least 25%.
Separate findings from researchers in the Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health show that, thanks to their antioxidant properties, consuming food sources of lycopene can significantly lower your risk of lung cancer.
In 2016, four scientists from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom discovered that lycopene slows the growth of breast and prostate cancer cells by suppressing the signals that instruct the cells to rapidly grow and multiply. They noted that the levels of lycopene required to achieve that are “relevant and achievable” through dietary intake.
This adds to the already impressive array of evidence on the impact of lycopene on prostate cancer risk. In fact, based on the robust data on lycopene and it’s promising prevention of prostate cancer, you could say lycopene benefits for men outstrip those for women.
According to a 2002 review written by a Harvard Medical School professor, an increased consumption of tomatoes and tomato products can significantly reduce a person’s risk of prostate cancer.
And a 23-year study that followed over 46,000 men offers detailed information on exactly how much lycopene you need to eat to mitigate your risk of prostate cancer. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2016, looked specifically at tomato sauce as a means of delivering clinically relevant doses of lycopene. The study’s authors learned that men who consumed two or more servings of tomato sauce weekly were 30% less likely to develop prostate cancer than those who ate less than one serving monthly.
Benefit #2: Heart Health
Research strongly indicates that lycopene can keep your heart healthy and strong. An article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that carotenoids, including lycopene, can help to prevent cardiovascular disease.
A 2002 article published in Experimental Biology and Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, found that lycopene can prevent the kind of oxidative stress known to play a role in the development of coronary heart disease. The author, Venket Rao, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, found strong evidence that lycopene can lower your risk of coronary heart disease. “Although the antioxidant property of lycopene may be one of the principal mechanisms for its effect, other mechanisms may also be responsible,” stated Rao.
In 2016, a critical review confirmed that lycopene can help lower risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition to its antioxidant effect, the review highlighted lycopene’s other bioactive properties, which the authors noted could help defend against endothelial cell damage, improve blood flow, and reduce inflammatory responses. The authors also note that lycopene may have an especially beneficial impact on the health of individuals who are antioxidant deficient or who have high levels of oxidative stress, such as older adults, people who smoke, and people who have diabetes or who are receiving hemodialysis.
According to research published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, eating tomatoes—the most concentrated dietary source of lycopene—can decrease your risk of atherosclerosis. This disease of the arteries, characterized by a buildup of fatty plaques in the inner walls of the arteries, is a known risk factor for heart disease and heart attack. It appears that lycopene’s ability to prevent atherosclerosis comes from its effect on how the body metabolizes cholesterol. The study found that lycopene can reduce total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
Lycopene also improves outcomes for individuals with metabolic syndrome, a constellation of disorders that often progresses to heart disease. A study published in Nutrition Research in 2016 found that high blood levels of lycopene significantly reduced the odds that an individual with metabolic syndrome would die prematurely. Based on data from a total of 2499 participants with metabolic syndrome from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the authors found that individuals with the highest blood lycopene levels were almost 40% less likely to have a shortened lifespan due to metabolic syndrome.
And a meta-analysis published in 2014 that based its conclusion on studies that enrolled a combined total of 116,127 participants found that lycopene decreased stroke risk by slightly over 19%.
Benefit #3: Vision Health
Studies show that lycopene can help prevent several common conditions that cause your eyesight to deteriorate.
Scientists from the Department of Pharmacology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences found that lycopene’s ability to combat oxidative stress makes it an effective means of preventing and treating cataracts.
And lycopene’s combined antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help forestall the chemical changes that lead to the development of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss among older adults. Findings published in Life Sciences in 2016 showed that lycopene has the ability to inhibit changes in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells, which prevents the progression of age-related macular degeneration.
Benefit #4: Neuropathic Pain Treatment
Neuropathic pain, also called neuropathy, is a complicated condition caused by nerve damage and often accompanied by soft tissue damage. Neuropathic pain can be the result of diabetes, limb amputation, alcoholism, and many other conditions. It can also occur idiopathically, meaning doctors cannot identify its underlying cause.
Neuropathic pain can be extremely challenging to treat. Addressing the root cause of the pain, if it can be determined, can bring some relief. Aside from that, physicians may have little to offer patients other than over the-counter pain medications. Unfortunately, those drugs and other traditional pain management techniques tend to have little impact on neuropathic pain.
It appears that lycopene may be able to fill that gap. A 2016 study found that lycopene can help to reduce nerve-injury induced pain. A 2008 study published in the European Journal of Pain looked specifically at neuropathic pain related to diabetes, one of the most difficult types to treat, and found that lycopene had significant pain-relieving capacities.
These findings indicate that increasing lycopene intake could help alleviate neuropathic pain that fails to respond to other treatments.
Benefit #4: Brain Protection
Lycopene has compelling benefits for brain health too. Scientific analysis reveals it can help prevent Alzheimer’s, as well as slow the damage done by the disease.
Findings published in Neuroscience Letters in 2015 show that lycopene can have a neuroprotective effect. It influences the cellular mechanisms underlying the progressions of Alzheimer’s, correcting cellular corruption and protecting healthy cells. The authors concluded that increasing lycopene intake could be a “novel approach” to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s as well as to impede its progression.
Lycopene’s ability to inhibit oxidative stress is also useful as a means of preventing Alzheimer’s disease and limiting the damage done as it advances. Oxidative stress can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction, a hallmark of the disease. An article published in Neurochemical Research found that lycopene can stop the alterations which result in that dysfunction.
Lycopene can limit the damage done by epileptic seizures too. According to study results published in Phytotherapy Research in 2016, lycopene can help to treat epilepsy by reducing oxidative stress. It can also help correct cognitive damage done by previous seizures.
Last but not least, a team of Chinese researchers discovered that lycopene can mitigate the detrimental impact of unhealthy dietary choices on cognitive function. Specifically, they showed it can prevent declines in memory and learning impairments.
Benefit #5: Bone Strength
Again, due to its ability to counteract oxidative stress, lycopene can prevent the loss of bone mass, reinforce bone structure, and restore bone strength. This means bones that could become weak and brittle stay healthy instead. A 2016 article published in Bone, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found that these effects of lycopene could render it a viable treatment for postmenopausal osteoporosis.
How to Increase Your Lycopene Intake
Tomato lycopene may be the most famous. Due to the high water content, lycopene concentrations aren’t as high in fresh tomatoes as they are in cooked or processed tomato products, such as tomato juice, tomato paste, tomato sauce, and yes…even ketchup! But you don’t have to limit yourself to just lycopene-rich tomato. Incorporating any of these lycopene foods into your diet will help you increase your intake.
- Red cabbage
- Cooked sweet red peppers
- Gac (a Vietnamese fruit)
It’s also possible to find lycopene supplements. Lycopene supplementation, however, can interact with certain medications, including blood thinners and blood-pressure lowering medications, in problematic ways. A small study also found that taking dietary supplements of lycopene during pregnancy may increase the risk of preterm labor as well as low birth weight.
There’s also some evidence that lycopene’s benefits are stronger when consumed as part of your diet, rather than in supplement form. One reason may be that there are multiple molecular compounds similar to lycopene that can be mistakenly used in supplements. It’s also possible that dietary lycopene provides compounds that work with it synergistically. Any of the lycopene-rich foods above are also high in antioxidants such as vitamin C , vitamin E, and vitamin A.
Since lycopene foods also contain a wealth of other nutrients that can improve your health in numerous ways, your best option is to look for ways to add more of those to your diet, rather than purchasing lycopene supplements.