You might not know this, but the humble tomato is a superstar when it comes to protecting your good health. Tomatoes contain a rare red pigment called “lycopene.” Lycopene acts as an antioxidant by neutralizing free radicals. New studies suggest that lycopene may have twice the cancer-fighting power of beta-carotene. And, for men, lycopene seems to concentrate in the prostate, potentially protecting this gland from cancerous tumor growth.
What else is in tomatoes that could keep you healthy? Tomatoes contain two powerful compounds: coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid. These two compounds have been found to block the effects of the most potent carcinogens in tobacco smoke. And tomatoes also contain a large dose of vitamin C, which has long been known as an antioxidant. Here are some of the nutrients you get when you eat a tomato:
- Vitamin C
- Alpha and beta-carotene
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B1
A Harvard Medical School study found that women who had more lycopene in their systems had a reduced risk for getting cardiovascular disease. In another study, 10 healthy women ate a diet containing tomato puree for 21 days and then switched over to a tomato-free diet for 21 days. After the first 21 days, lycopene concentrations increased in the group that consumed the tomato diet and decreased in the group that consumed the tomato-free diet. Tomato consumption also had an effect on cellular antioxidant capacity: DNA damage was decreased by 33% and by 42% in the two groups after consumption of the tomato diet.
It turns out that you don’t necessarily have to eat your tomatoes fresh. Researchers now know that processed tomatoes like in sauce and paste are more effective at reducing cancer risk. Processed tomato products and cooked tomatoes contain two to eight times the available lycopene of raw tomatoes. One hundred grams of fresh tomatoes contain between 0.88 mg and 4.20 mg of lycopene, but the same amount of cooked tomatoes, especially when they are concentrated in tomato paste, contains 5.40-150 mg of lycopene. And be sure to add a little olive oil. When you eat lycopene-rich foods with some healthy fat, the absorption rate is significantly increased: 100 grams of sundried tomato in oil provides 46.5 mg of lycopene, for example.
You should take note, however, that, compared to other carotenoids that are stored in your body, the level of lycopene falls quickly as soon as you stop eating lycopene-rich foods. Try to get a little bit of tomato every day. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds, since ketchup, pasta sauce, a tomato in a salad, pizza, and barbeque sauce all contain some lycopene. Not crazy about tomatoes? Apricots, watermelon, papaya, and pink grapefruit also contain some lycopene.