Heidi Godman

Lycopene-rich tomatoes linked to lower stroke risk

They are heaven on a burger and superstars in a sauce. But succulent tomatoes are far more than just a delicious fruit. Eating tomatoes may also help lower your risk of stroke, likely due to the lycopene they contain.

Lycopene is a carotenoid—a family of pigments that give fruits and vegetables their brilliant red, orange, and yellow coloring. Lycopene is also a powerful antioxidant that eliminates dangerous free radicals that can damage DNA and other fragile cell structures.

“The shape of the lycopene molecule makes it very effective in being able to quench free radicals,” says Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We don’t really understand it entirely yet, but lycopene may have specific properties that protect the cell in a way other antioxidants may not.”

Past research, some of it done by Dr. Giovannucci, has shown that a diet rich in lycopene-containing foods may help lower the risk of prostate and other cancers. Now, in a report just published in the journal Neurology, a team of Finnish researchers has linked lycopene levels in the blood to stroke protection. They made this connection after following more than a thousand middle-aged men for 12 years. Men with the greatest amounts of lycopene in their blood had a 55% lower chance of having any kind of stroke. The lycopene connection was even stronger (59%) when it came to protecting against strokes due to blood clots (the most common kind).

The finding came as a surprise—the researchers initially wanted to know if other antioxidants affected strokes, such as alpha carotene, beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E. But they didn’t.

Lycopene-stroke connection

The researchers suggested that lycopene, in addition to its ability to attack free radicals, may also reduce inflammation and cholesterol, improve immune function, and prevent blood from clotting. All of these may help reduce ischemic strokes, which are caused by clot-caused blockages in blood flow to the brain.

Most of that is plausible, says Dr. Giovannucci. But we still need larger studies to confirm the findings and to figure out if the stroke protection is due to lycopene or healthy lifestyle habits. “Remember, a high lycopene consumer is likely to eat more vegetables and not be a smoker,” says Dr. Giovannucci. Still, he says the benefits of lycopene for both cancer and stroke protection are very promising.

Personally, this makes me want to increase my tomato intake. Slice of tomato on my turkey sandwich? So yesterday. Hello, glass of tomato juice at every meal.

But hold that order. Overdoing it on lycopene isn’t necessary, says Dr. Giovannucci.

He recommends at least 10,000 micrograms of lycopene per day—from food. That sounds staggering, but it’s actually easier to get than you might think, especially since lycopene is found in other foods than tomatoes. Tomato-based products do, of course, give you the most bang for your buck.

Keep in mind that lycopene is better absorbed in the body when it’s combined with some fat, points out Dr. Giovannucci. “That’s because lycopene is fat soluble,” he explains, “and oil in tomato sauce, for example, makes it ideal for absorbing lycopene.”

But don’t go eating fatty foods with tomatoes because you want the lycopene absorption. Dr. Giovannucci says it’s better to eat a variety of healthy foods and shoot for the daily intake recommendation.

He also cautions that you don’t try to beat the system by popping a lycopene supplement. “Supplements may give you a purified form of lycopene, but you’re not sure you’re getting what you get from food. You may be getting the wrong form of lycopene in a supplement. There are also a lot of compounds in food that aren’t lycopene but that are similar, and some of those molecules may be part of what makes lycopene so beneficial,” says Dr. Giovannucci.

So stick to a diet that includes some lycopene-rich foods. It’s cost effective, it’s easy, and it’s not dangerous if you overdo it. There’s no evidence of lycopene toxicity from diet. Best of all, lycopene is likely in many of your favorite foods. And that makes the succulent tomato far more than a food; that makes it almost a nutraceutical.

Top lycopene-containing foods

Food

Micrograms of lycopene

½ cup canned tomato puree

27,192

1 cup canned tomato juice

21,960

1 wedge of raw watermelon

12,962

½ cup ready-to-serve marinara sauce

6,686

1 tablespoon canned tomato paste

3,140

1 tablespoon catsup

2,506

½ pink or red grapefruit

1,745

1 tablespoon salsa

1,682

One sun-dried tomato

918

One slice of raw tomato

515

One cherry tomato

437

 Source: USDA National Nutrient Database

 

Comments:

  1. Bill

    You no I have been reading about this study along with antioxidant studies, and your post is the best I’ve read yet!

  2. tomatonutrition

    amzing fruit,somethink we eat tomato in the burger few tomato for make delicious, but we don’t know if tomato have a important nutrition special for to reduce cancer risk

  3. Herbert

    Lycopene is great for anti-aging. Maintaining a healthy weight is another important factor to stay young.

  4. Anonymous

    I really like tomatoes, tomatoes every single day I eat, I eat just any tomato I finished up excess cholesterol, is there a solution other than tomatoes to prevent stroke early.?, Thank you in advance for your answers and information.

  5. hmd

    Thanks god I happened to love tomatoes very much even without knowing the benefit Lycopene

  6. Eva Vauchee

    I love tomatoes & have been eating them year round. farmers mkt. in summer & small ones the rest of the year. However, I have arthritis throughout my body, just had full knee-replacement surgery. How accurate is the idea that tomatoes & others in the nightshade family are detrimental to my arthritic body. I would love a response on this. I am a senior

  7. Annie

    The right result for a totally different reason. I had to have my gall bladder removed aged 17 due to colesterol gall stones.I’m now 66. Unbeknown to us my husband has PXE which has caused him to lose his sight and have a pacemaker fitted. Had I not had to follow a low fat diet our 45 year marriage would have finished long ago with me a widow. I love tomatoes, he dislikes most fruit and vegetables. Consequently I slip tomato paste into gravy and stews. Why, because I was told that brightly coloured vegetables are good for you when I was at an impressionable age. It should also be noted that I cook from scratch using only fresh food. Ready meals and takeaways are a no no but bulk food cooking saves energy and provides nutritious food. In the UK this is only provided in schools, soup kitchens and home delivery hot meals for the housebound. The latter being privately organised on a business basis. I don’t read many blogs, but the Harvard Health Blog I never miss. Thank you for the enlightenment.

  8. Victor Perton

    Many thanks for this interesting advice!

  9. www.airmidnutrients.com/

    I, understand patients have a right to information during provider-patient interaction, but in some cases health workers can not give the information to patients especially in the low developing countries. Thanks for sharing the valuable information to the patients.

  10. Janet Wild

    Prevention is always better then Cure.
    Sadly, some of my best friends, and physically
    fit friends have had a heart attack and now they are
    a shadow of themselves.
    Over the years we all build up sticky blood platelets which then cause blood clots and makes it more difficult for our blood to flow healthy;
    EFSA 13.5 Fruitflow in my opinion could save many people from the misery of heart attacks and strokes.

  11. Bbosa Paul

    I, understand patients have a right to information during provider-patient interaction, but in some cases health workers deny information to patients especially in the low developing countries.May i know what hinders health workers to deny information to patients during treatment.

  12. Peter Brewster

    What is the half-life of a dollop of lycopene? Half a cup of tomato juice sounds easy enough to me – compared to the amount in “real tomatoes” but the salt is a real conflict. Getting anywhere close to 10,000 units per day on a likely diet is a major challenge.

    • P.J. Skerrett

      Salt can be an issue, especially when lycopene comes from prepared products like tomato juice or canned tomato sauce. I like tomato juice, but always buy low-sodium products and add a shake of potassium salt. (Don’t try this if you are living with heart failure or need to limit potassium.)

  13. Deborah Jones

    Where does the research stand on the arthritis/tomato connection? Or was that never scientifically proven? I knew a woman who wouldn’t touch a tomato — said it made her arthritis flare up. Personally, I never believed it, and am very happy to see this positive connection with lycopene.

    • P.J. Skerrett

      Although there hasn’t been a lot of research on tomatoes/lycopene and arthritis, the meager evidence suggests that more carotenoids (from food) is associated with lower risk of arthritis. But hey, we’re all different. If a person believes that a particular fruit or vegetable causes arthritis to flare, you have to respect his or her perception.

      • Janet Wild

        European Food Safety Agency, EFSA has already passed a product called Fruitflow with a EFSA 13.5 pass, which is now being added to Fruit Juices in America and is based on the benefits of concentrated Tomatoes is shown to reduce the problems caused by blood clots by smoothing out the sticky platelets that stick together and cause blood clots and difficulty for blood flow.