Plants produce phytochemicals that not only help the plant stay healthy, but also provide health benefits for us. Phytochemicals are closely associated with the color of fruits and vegetables. Lycopene is found in red tomatoes, watermelon, papaya, red grapefruit, and guava.
Health Benefits of Lycopene
Lycopene can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving the elasticity of blood vessels, reducing the plaque in blood vessels that can contribute to heart attacks, decreasing inflammation, and reducing blood pressure. Epidemiologic studies suggest that people who consume more foods high in lycopene have decreased risk of some types of cancer, especially lung, stomach, prostate, and breast cancer. Although research results can be inconsistent, overall it appears that regularly consuming more red-colored vegetables and fruits has an important beneficial impact on health.
Tips to Improve Lycopene Absorption
Several factors influence the absorption and bioavailability* of lycopene, including the season during which the fruits or vegetables were harvested, processing, and the type of fruit or vegetable.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 85% of the lycopene in our diets comes from tomatoes and tomato products. Use these tips to improve your absorption of lycopene and gain more of the health benefits:
- Processing tomato products such as tomato juice, paste, puree, ketchup, sauce, or soup improves the bioavailability of lycopene since heating tomatoes releases lycopene from the fibrous cell structure.
- Diets high in fiber may reduce the amount of lycopene absorbed. This doesn’t mean that we should reduce our fiber intake, because fiber helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and improves gastrointestinal health. Instead, it’s important to include more red-colored fruits and vegetables in your daily food choices to increase the amount of lycopene consumed.
- Consume foods containing lycopene with a source of fat that contains monounsaturated fatty acids to improve lycopene absorption. Foods high in monounsaturated fat include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, avocados, peanut butter, almond butter, almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and pistachios.
- For improved lycopene absorption, enjoy pasta with homemade tomato-based pasta sauce prepared with olive oil, or combine red grapefruit segments with avocado in a salad, drink tomato juice for breakfast with scrambled eggs cooked in canola oil, or choose watermelon for dessert in a meal that contains fat from nuts, seeds, or olive oil.
By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC
- Mozos I, Stoian D, Caraba A, Malainer C, Horba?czuk JO, Atanasov AG. Lycopene and Vascular Health. Front Pharmacol. 2018;9:521. Published 2018 May 23. doi:10.3389/fphar.2018.00521
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Lycopene. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/lycopene Last updated 12-12-17; accessed 11-26-18
- American Institute for Cancer Research. Heat, Shape and Type: Increasing Lycopene Absorption. http://www.aicr.org/cancer-research-update/2015/10_14/cru_Heat-Shape-and-Type-Increasing-Lycopene-
- Absorption.html published October 14, 2015. Accessed 11-26-18
- Dietary Fiber. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/dietary-fiber.html Accessed 11-28-18.
- American Heart Association. Monounsaturated Fat. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/monounsaturated-fats last reviewed 6-1-15. Accessed 11-26-18.
* The amount that can be effectively used by the body.
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.